Florence federal prison dangerously understaffed, officers worry for safety of community

Published: Mar. 1, 2018 at 9:20 PM MST
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Correctional officers in Colorado say federal prisons are dangerously understaffed, and with more cuts coming, things could get even worse.

In an 11 Call for Action Investigation, reporter Jessica Leicht took a closer look at the Florence Federal Correctional Complex and heard concerns by several officers.

"I spent my afternoon with a coworker who works at the United States Penitentiary. He was stabbed by an inmate as he was picking up food trays,” Correctional Officer & Union 1169 President Richard Arko said.

The Federal Correctional Complex in Florence houses several different facilities, ranging from minimum security to maximum - which includes some of the most dangerous inmates in the country.

The correctional officers say there's not enough staff to cover all the overtime they need to work, so employees like teachers and counselors are forced to fill in.

"They are observant. They know who is good at their job, they know who is not good at their job. They know whose new, who is not new. When they see someone from another department come in that doesn't seem competent, they take advantage of those employees. If they were going to try to attack somebody or escape, that's when they would plan it,” Arko said.

A hiring freeze in 2017 left 172 vacancies at the prison. Now, the Department of Justice is getting rid of 127 of those positions.

"The inmates know we're tired. If we're lucky to go home at the end of an 8-hour shift, inmates still have 24 hours seven days a week to figure out how to beat us,” one correctional officer told 11 News.

These officers say there’s a risk to the community too. They say these dangerous criminals could try to escape.

"You never rule anything out and you never get lax, because that's complacency. With the amount of overtime and fatigue, exhaustion going on it's easy to become complacent. Could it happen? It absolutely could,” Correctional Officer Derrick Padilla said.

Those officers aren't the only ones with concerns - In a bipartisan effort, 52 members of Congress, including Colorado Congressman Doug Lamborn signed a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The letter says there's not enough staff at our prisons and urges him to reconsider budget cuts.

11 News reached out to the Bureau of Prisons about the cuts. Their response is below:

“We (Bureau-wide) are currently eliminating several thousand vacant authorized positions. These positions have been identified by the Department of Justice and Congress to be eliminated as they have been unfunded for some time. The elimination of these positions will not result in any staff members being displaced or any Reduction in Force, and the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) does not expect this to impact institutional operations or its overall ability to maintain a safe environment for inmates and staff. Likewise, we believe that reducing authorized positions will not have a negative impact on public safety. The FY2018 budget has not yet been enacted. To the extent the FY2018 budget calls for the elimination of additional positions, the BOP will work with DOJ to effect such changes. The safety of staff, inmates, and the public is the highest priority for the BOP. We understand concerns have been raised regarding staffing levels at institutions around the country, particularly about the use of non-custody staff working Correctional Officer posts. All staff assigned to our prisons are professional law enforcement officers who are trained and expected to perform law enforcement functions. They receive law enforcement pay and other benefits that other federal employees do not receive.”

to read a letter to the United States Attorney General from members of Congress on the matter.