Prisons increasingly employ teachers and secretaries to substitute for guards
At a West Texas prison in Big Spring, Texas, more than 400 inmates were crowded into a three-story building. Only two guards were on duty, one correctional officer, and a health worker. A part-time counselor patrolled the security fences, armed with three weapons. And a fourth worker, a commissary clerk, patrolled the halls.
Big Spring belongs to a growing list of understaffed prisons nationwide. Currently, state prisons regularly employ support staff, teachers, and nurses into guard duty. As the Trump administration restricts hiring to reduce government size, the practice of hiring support staff to substitute as guards is not uncommon. It usually occurs during emergencies. The practice is referred to as “augmentation.”
However, as the shortage of prison guards grows and support staff substituting as guards become routine, prisons’ staffing condition is worrying many substitute workers.
The New York Times reports that “violent incidents increased almost 15 percent in 2017 from the year before” at a West Virginia prison.
“When you’re an officer and in the units for eight hours a day, you get to know the inmates,” a teacher at a Florida prison told the Times. “You can tell when a fight is about to happen. I don’t have that background… The inmates see this and they know we are outnumbered. They know we have people working in the units who don’t have the slightest idea what to do.”
While support staff receives a couple of weeks’ training, many workers report feeling uncomfortable as they are still inexperienced. Support staff is also under contract to fulfill guard roles when needed.
Thomas Kane, acting director of the prison bureau, sent a note to all prison wardens in 2016 on this practice.
“It has long been the position of this agency that while all institutional staff are ‘correctional workers first,’ non-custody staff should not be asked to fill correctional officer posts on a routine basis,” he wrote.
Due to the staffing turmoil and unsafe guard patrol, some question the role of prisons and mass incarceration as a suitable call for justice. Many also point out that prisons are hostile environments, whether well staffed or not, where injustices take place all the time with no consequences or public scrutiny.