Dangerous conditions at supermax prison cited as Colorado lawmaker tries to boost staffing
Rep. Pettersen urges Bureau of Prisons to address workforce issues at FCC Florence
A view of the entrance to the Florence Federal Correctional Complex. (Google Maps)
A member of Congress from Colorado is concerned about understaffing creating dangerous conditions at the most secure federal prison in America, which is in her district.
U.S. Rep. Brittany Pettersen wrote to the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons for a second time this year, asking for the Federal Correctional Complex in Florence to hire all of its own staff, which is quicker than the typical hiring process, and provide new-hire bonuses worth 25% of their salary.
The American Federation of Government Employees Local 1169, the union that represents about 640 members employed at FCC Florence, has advocated higher retention bonuses for all new employees since a federal hiring freeze during the pandemic in 2020. FCC Florence had been permitted to hire and onboard 62 employees on its own, but the union wants to retain more “direct-hire authority positions” since it recently filled all these positions and continues to have overworked staff and high turnover.
“Employees continue to struggle with forced overtime leading to dangerous conditions at the nation’s only supermax facility,” Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat, said in the letter to bureau Director Colette Peters. “It seems imperative to request additional direct-hire authority positions to ease these conditions.”
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The Supermax Administrative Maximum Facility, sometimes called “The Alcatraz of the Rockies,” is one of the facilities at FCC Florence. It houses high-profile criminals, including drug trafficker Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán and Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev. It is the nation’s highest-security prison, located in Fremont County in Pettersen’s 7th Congressional District.
John Butkovich, president of AFGE Local 1169, said staffing issues continue to disturb working conditions at FCC Florence. Typically, interested applicants need to go through human resources at the Bureau of Prison’s Grand Prairie, Texas, location. Butkovich said that while this process can take anywhere from six to seven months to get a new hire started, the FCC Florence human resources team can get a new hire working within 30-45 days, which he called “a night and day difference.”
“If you’re looking for a job, you’re looking for a job now,” Butkovich said.
The local human resources team was able to implement the changes and onboard new hires “swiftly,” Butkovich said, because “they know their job.” He said the 62 positions that FCC Florence filled itself included correctional officers and medical staff. While FCC Florence has had 30 new hires since January, Butkovich said, it’s also had 37 resignations, retirements or transfers.
Pettersen initially wrote to Peters and Kiran Ahuja, director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, in January, sharing the union’s concerns with “low pay, forced overtime, and dangerous working conditions that have exacerbated low morale, high attrition, and an inability to recruit and hire sufficient staff.”
FCC Florence is currently 129 staff members short, a slight improvement from when it was short 151 staff members in September 2021, Butkovich said, citing staffing reports. He added that by the time October rolls around, 86 current staff members will be eligible for retirement, 14 of whom “will hit the mandatory retirement age of 57 and be forced out.”
Colorado’s U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper, both Democrats, helped secure a 25% retention bonus for correctional officers at the facility in July 2022, but only a 10% retention bonus for non-custody staff like educators and counselors. This means that as soon as someone signs on to work for the Bureau of Prisons, they get that percentage of their salary up front. The two senators also support the union’s goal of seeing this raised to 25% for all FCC Florence staff.
Pettersen emphasized in her April letter that the BOP has been “much too slow” in its response to support the staff at FCC Florence. She said that while staffing reports show an increased number of correctional officers, case managers, counselors, nurses and other non-correctional staff continue to remain understaffed.
“FCC Florence has proven, with direct-hire authority, the ability to bring on staff,” Pettersen said in the letter. “The renewal of this authority, combined with the 25% retention would allow the complex to continue to hire at expedited rates, while maintaining staff in crucial non-correctional positions. These efforts would support a safe custodial environment, along with the provision of quality programs and services.”
‘Might ultimately save some lives’
Reconsideration of direct-hire authority at FCC Florence requires an ask from an elected official, according to both Pettersen and Butkovich. After she visited the facility earlier and met with AFGE Local 1169 leadership in April, Pettersen said she and her team put together the letter to Peters that same day to advocate an expedited hiring process.
“It expedites the process that can take a significant amount of time, and they lose applicants who have to wait,” Pettersen told Newsline. “It still has the same standards, it still goes through all of the necessary background checks, but because they’re able to oversee the process, it goes through significantly quicker.”
In a response to Pettersen from the BOP’s Office of Legislative Affairs on Jan. 24, the agency defended its prioritization of staffing at all locations and said it was preparing a request for the Office of Personnel Management to provide 25% retention incentives for all staff. The OPM’s response to Pettersen said it had yet to receive a request from the Department of Justice to extend the 25% retention bonus to additional staff at FCC Florence.
The OPM’s letter said there are different conditions that need to be met for federal agencies to provide retention bonuses for a whole group of employees or an individual, and agencies must submit an incentive waiver request to OPM.
“OPM stands ready to work together with BOP to address recruitment and retention needs at FCC Florence,” the letter reads. “We understand BOP is considering which options would be most appropriate to address the current issues at FCC Florence.”
Pettersen said it’s important for her to ensure government and public services function as they are supposed to across her district.
“Some of the most rewarding parts of this job is utilizing this position to put pressure where we need on things like this that do make a difference in people’s lives and might ultimately save some lives too,” she said.
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