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Senate Democrats urge action to increase federal prison pay rates

Federal Bureau of Prisons has said it faces a “crisis” in recruiting and retaining employees

Senate Judiciary Chair Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., led a group of panel Democrats in a letter about pay at federal prisons.
Senate Judiciary Chair Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., led a group of panel Democrats in a letter about pay at federal prisons. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

A group of Senate Democrats have urged the federal prison system to request pay raises for correctional officers and others to address a staffing crisis within the system, a problem a watchdog report linked to the deaths of inmates.

Senate Judiciary Chair Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and seven other members of the panel sent a letter last week that recommended the federal Bureau of Prisons send a “special pay rate request” to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.

“A special pay rate will provide an additional tool for BOP to immediately address its staffing shortage within its current budget, while Congress works on long-term solutions to this crisis,” the Democratic senators wrote.

OPM can set higher rates of basic pay to address “existing or likely significant handicaps in recruiting or retaining well-qualified employees,” according to its website.

Special pay rates are temporary, but they are not usually set with an expiration date and OPM reviews the rates periodically, Senate Judiciary Committee staff said.

The recommendation from Democrats comes months after Bureau of Prisons Director Colette Peters told lawmakers the agency faces a “crisis” in recruiting and retaining employees and the base salary for correctional officers needs to be increased.

At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in February, Peters said they have thrown every incentive they can at the issue, such as raising the base salary for correctional officers by $2,000. But the agency head said they are still not able to compete with the private sector and other law enforcement agencies.

“We have recruitment and retention incentives across the country. We have direct hire authority. The bottom line, as I said in my opening comments, is we need to pay them more,” Peters said.

Durbin announced that hearing after a scathing watchdog report found that systemic and operational failures contributed to scores of prisoner deaths.

The Justice Department’s inspector general reviewed hundreds of inmate deaths and found serious issues that created unsafe conditions. The report said the BOP “specifically identified insufficient staffing as an issue” in at least 30 of the prisoner deaths reviewed by the inspector general’s office.

The report criticized the agency’s emergency response to inmate deaths, raised doubts about its ability to properly assess inmate mental health and detailed failures in the agency’s efforts to root out contraband drugs and weapons.

A compromise fiscal 2024 spending package passed by Congress this year kept the BOP salaries and expenses account level compared to fiscal 2023.

The final $8.39 billion allocation for fiscal 2024 came despite both the House and Senate previously proposing an increase.

The senators, in the letter, urged the BOP to request higher pay rates for correctional officers but also for all “non-supervisory staff,” including for positions such as teachers, nurses, doctors and psychologists.

“Recent Senate Judiciary Committee oversight hearings have highlighted the fact that understaffed prisons cannot ensure the safety of, or necessary services for, those in their care, including critical medical and mental health care,” the letter said.

The letter also said a practice known as “augmentation,” where noncustody prison officials like teachers or medical staff have to do the routine duties of correctional officers, hampers the implementation of a bipartisan criminal sentencing law passed in 2018.

Peters, during her February appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee, described the practice of “augmentation” as a great resource in the short term.

“We’ve been using it in the long term to solve a long-term recruitment and retention problem, and it is making our people exhausted,” Peters said.

The push from senators has received the support of Brandy Moore White, national president for the American Federation of Government Employees’ Council of Prison Locals.

White, in a letter cited by the Senate Democrats, called competitive pay “essential” for drawing in and keeping qualified employees.

“A significant pay increase would help address the ongoing issue of understaffing in federal correctional facilities, which compromises both the safety of the officers and the inmates,” White wrote.

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