Union: Prison ‘dangerously understaffed’
Union president says FCI Ray Brook losing COs, reducing services for inmates
RAY BROOK — For several months, corrections officers at the federal prison in Ray Brook have been leaving their government jobs for any other work because they feel overworked, underpaid, understaffed and unsafe, according to a union leader for staff at the prison.
As the medium security Federal Corrections Institute at Ray Brook hemorrhages corrections officers, it’s filling gaps with teachers, case workers and maintenance staff at the prison, according to Darrell Pilon, the president of AFGE Local 3882, the union representing FCI Ray Brook’s corrections officers — which means inmates are being denied some of the basic tools they need to reduce sentences and reenter society with new skills.
Staff morale at the prison is “abysmal,” according to Pilon.
The federal prison currently has 71 corrections officers for 920 inmates, and around 225 total staff, Pilon said, including all the non-custody staff.
The Enterprise reached out to local and regional representatives for the Federal Bureau of Prisons for this article. Spokespeople said they were not able to respond to questions before publication of this article, but promised responses on Friday.
The BOP provided a statement to North Country Public Radio earlier this week.
“The (BOP) is committed to ensuring appropriate staffing levels to maintain the safety and security of staff, inmates, and its institutions. The BOP continues to take concrete steps to increase staffing,” the statement reads.
Pilon said corrections officers are being mandated to work 16-hour double shifts three or four times a week.
“Mandatory overtime has increased exponentially,” he wrote in an email to the Enterprise.
Pilon said there were around 600 inmates at the prison from 2016 until 2020. Since then, the prison has taken in around 300 more inmates while losing CO staff. The prison has not been able to hire enough to keep up. He says that’s because the prison does not pay enough to attract and keep officers.
Prisons around the U.S. are experiencing similar issues. Because of that, Pilon said he’s not pointing fingers at local leaders.
“The current warden, (David) Christensen, acknowledges the emergent needs of FCI Ray Brook, but unfortunately his requests are falling on deaf ears,” Pilon wrote.
Last Sunday, the union paid for and installed a 6-by-12-foot sign in front of the FCI Ray Brook sign on state Route 86, which reads: “Dangerously understaffed federal prison ahead. Are you safe?” The sign included emails for prison officials.
Pilon said union members are tired of seeing the facility lose staff in a cycle of underfunding.
That sign was taken down on Thursday, Pilon said, because the North Elba code office told him the sign was too large and violated the code. He said some people have taken issue with its content, too, and clarified that “dangerous” was in reference to the staffing levels, not the inmates. The union has plans to install new signs at another close location, he said.
COs getting out
The prison had around 100 officers in April. Since then, Pilon said many of them have left to transfer to jobs with the New York State Police, U.S. Border Patrol or other local, state and federal law enforcement jobs. He said he knows of six more employees who are “waiting for a call any day to leave.”
One left four years of experience in the federal job to go back to bartending because “it’s that toxic,” he said. Two others just quit with no new job lined up because they couldn’t take the low pay, high hours and poor quality of life anymore, he added.
There seem to be next to no new hires and a lot of turnover — when someone does take a job, they often last no more than a year before they leave, he said.
Pilon attributes that to what he sees as benefits and starting pay that are not good enough to attract applicants anymore.
Pilon says he does exit interviews with people who leave jobs at the facility. He said 61% of people leaving cite pay as their reason for leaving. Nationally, 54% of BOP workers leave their jobs because of the pay, he said.
The starting pay at FCI Ray Brook is $21.45 an hour, according to Pilon. He said prison staff compare that to the the wages at the Aldi grocery store down the road in Saranac Lake, where starting pay has been increased to around $18 per hour, or Target in Plattsburgh, where some positions get a starting pay as high as $24 per hour and a pension.
Under the past three presidential administrations, there have been BOP hiring freezes and pay raises limited to 1%. Pay raises have not kept up with inflation, Pilon said.
“The cost of living has killed us,” he said.
Even state corrections officers get 1-to-2% pay increases every year while he said the BOP COs often get below 1%.
Pilon said FCI Ray Brook is in a uniquely tough location, too. Many employees there commute from Plattsburgh and Malone because they can’t afford to live in the Tri-Lakes, he said.
“In the end, one cannot expect someone to work in an environment in which the agency has no care in regards to their financial or physical well-being,” Pilon wrote.
With low CO staffing levels, the prison leans on “augmentation” to fill the gaps. Augmentation brings in the prison’s non-custody staff — teachers, electricians, plumbers, medical workers, case managers and counselors — to do correctional officer work. They’re all qualified to do this work, but when they are constantly pulled out of their primary jobs, no one else does their work.
“Staff assigned to correctional facilities are Federal Law Enforcement Officers and are considered correctional workers first, regardless of their occupation,” BOP spokesperson Emery Nelson wrote in an email to the Enterprise in April. “All staff receive the same amount of law enforcement training as correctional workers and are informed at the time of hiring they are expected to perform law enforcement functions during routine and non-routine situations.”
Nelson said in five months — from October 2021 to March 2022 — 3,248 hours of augmentation were clocked at the prison.
An employee at FCI Ray Brook who requested anonymity for fear of losing their job said they have been at the prison for nearly two decades and work as non-custody staff now. They said getting pulled onto augmentation has been getting consistently more common over the past two years, and now it’s more frequent than it’s ever been.
It used to be augmentation would be occasional, they said. Now, they’ll spend weeks working as COs, all the while, falling behind on their work. Being a cook, plumber or teacher gets put on the “back-burner.”
Non-custody staff are coming in to work mornings, evenings and weekends when they aren’t usually supposed to, they said.
“They’re just kind of piling stress upon stress,” the staff member said.
Pilon said currently, seven non-custody staff work day shifts, three work evenings and two work mornings — that’s every day.
These non-custody employees are not quitting as quickly as COs, Pilon said, but he added that several of them with nearly a decade of experience at the job each are seriously considering leaving.
The anonymous staff member said their job at the prison was a good job when they started. Now, they only stay at the prison because they’ve been there for years and they’re on their way to retirement. If they were not looking down that home stretch to retirement, they said they would probably be looking for another job.
“Why would you want to go work in a place where you could get beat up, stabbed, possibly die, or just go work at Target and put stuff on a shelf for about the same money?” the staff member said.
Inmates bearing “brunt” of shortage
While things are very hard for employees there — correctional and otherwise — Pilon said no one feels the hurt of the staff shortages and item shortages more than the people incarcerated there.
“The biggest effect is on the inmate,” Pilon said. “The inmates are the ones ultimately, who are feeling the brunt of it.”
The prison, after all, is “their home,” he said.
“Inmates, basically, they feel punished right now,” Pilon said. “We can’t offer the programs and the attention that they deserve.”
“It’s gotten to where the shortage is affecting inmates too,” the anonymous staff member said. “The inmates are starting to lose privileges.”
Educational programming for inmates has taken a hit.
“That irritates the inmates. Rightfully so,” Pilon said. “They’re trying to take college courses or a trade … Certain courses help reduce their sentence and they’re trying to do their part to go back into society and not re-offend. And we’re not able to 100% comply with that because we don’t have the staff to do those programs.”
Visitations are also cancelled occasionally because there’s not enough people left to run them, leaving inconsistent schedules for inmates who come from all over the country.
If a mother in Chicago buys a plane ticket to come visit their son in prison, and the visit gets cancelled because of understaffing, it is frustrating, the anonymous staff member said.
“I’m sure it’s putting stress on inmates and their families, which doesn’t help,” they said.
Sometimes the commissary — where inmates can buy food and essentials with money from family and friends — is closed for a week because no one is staffing it, the anonymous staff member said.
There have been shortages at the commissary due to vendor cancellations and supply chain issues this year. Pilon said because of the supply shortages, to make sure there’s enough left in the commissary for everyone, the BOP cut the amount of money inmates can spend there in half.
Pilon said inmates are starting to get fed up with it, too, which increases tension more.
That’s their “grocery store,” Pilon said, and a secondary source of food.
A wife of an inmate there, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, said it’s common practice to supplement the meals provided by the prison with food purchased from the commissary because the portions brought to their cells are too small.
“The feed trays are appallingly meager, and each day only a brown bag consisting of baloney and bread is served for dinner. … it’s never warm and never fresh,” her husband wrote. “Moreover, the prison will not stock its commissary.”
Without access to this supplementary food, they go hungry, she said.
Nelson said the BOP authorizes a menu, which is reviewed by its Health Services and Food Service divisions, which she said has “a variety of healthy food options to accommodate the needs of every inmate in our care.”
The prison is authorized by the BOP to have 110 COs, Pilon said, so it is currently 65% staffed. Earlier this year, it was 93% staffed, but even then, Pilon said they were understaffed because he believes the authorization numbers are set too low.
“They play paper games and number games and try to make it look better than it is,” Pilon said.
He said he believes BOP executives do not authorize enough employees at prisons because when these numbers look good, BOP executives get bonuses or promotions for doing “more with less.” But the numbers, he said, are “a lie” with no regard for the safety of the people working there.
“The Bureau of Prisons continues to use deceptive tactics when it comes to staffing levels by making prisons look good on paper while they are actually drowning,” Pilon wrote. “They continue to change authorized positions at their whim to cover up their self created crisis.”
Pilon said a staffing audit in 2018 showed FCI Ray Brook was authorized to have 132 Correctional Officer positions but was staffed with 108 — putting the prison at 81% staffed then. A 2022 audit shows the prison was authorized to have 110 positions, despite there being around 300 more inmates than in 2018.
“This handcuffs the ability to hire,” Pilon wrote.
The BOP has enough money to put into repairing its staffing hole, Pilon said, but he believes the department is not using it.
The BOP has been given increasing amounts money each year for the past six years in its budget set by Congress, including a $200 million increase this year for hiring and retaining staff. Congress authorized $7.86 billion dollars this year for salaries and expenses in the federal prison system.
He said underfunding makes prisons more dangerous. With less security, it is easier for an inmate to do something dangerous.
“They’re going to end up getting someone hurt,” Pilon said of the BOP’s “big wigs.”
The union can’t negotiate pay rates for its members like other unions can. Pay for correctional staff is set at the federal level. This takes the “teeth” out of union, the anonymous staff member said.
What the union can do is apply for retention pay to keep employees. Pilon said FCI Ray Brook Warden Christensen put in a request on Aug. 1 but has not had any response from the federal government yet.
Pilon is requesting a 25% pay increase, as other BOP facilities have gotten, until the prison is back at full staffing.
Pilon believes if things change some COs who have left might come back.
Brian Eggleston has been a corrections officer at FCI Ray Brook for around 20 years. He was deployed with the military from 2016 to 2020. When he came back, the numbers were “staggeringly low.” And they’ve only gotten lower as the prison has gotten more inmates.
This week, Eggleston said he worked 40 hours of overtime in nine days.
This isn’t safe, he said. He does not feel comfortable being tired at work, and on his 1.4-hour ride home to Brushton, he’s had to pull over to the side of the road because he was feeling too exhausted to drive.
Eggleston said he stays because he loves the job. As a military man, he likes the order, control and certainty. He also said he feels a duty to stay and not contribute to the staffing shortage.
At night, there are typically fewer than 20 staff working at the prison, Eggleston said. If anything serious happens then, he fears he may die on the job. He has started writing a will to leave for his children.