Staffing shortages and deficient training leave First Step Act floundering, federal prison employees say

Roberto Gonzalez
·6 min read

Chronic staffing shortages in federal prisons and a lack of training have impeded implementation of a Trump-era law designed to give nonviolent inmates the opportunity for early release, locking some up longer and contributing to eroding morale, union leaders and rank-and-file staff members said in interviews.

Outgoing Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal was grilled this week by both Democratic and Republican senators at a contentious subcommittee hearing at which employee whistleblowers described unsanitary and unsafe conditions at a federal penitentiary in Atlanta and sexual abuse by staff members at a women's prison in California, among other allegations of misconduct.

Carvajal, a Trump administration holdover, announced his retirement in January amid criticism of a crisis-filled tenure marked by scandals at the beleaguered bureau and aggravated by low staffing levels during the coronavirus pandemic.

Staff members at some of the country's largest federal prisons said carrying out the First Step Act, a bipartisan law signed in 2018 by then-President Donald Trump, has been taxing, if not impossible.

"It's not going at all," Joe Rojas, the literacy coordinator at the Coleman Federal Corrections Complex in Florida, said of the First Step Act's implementation.

"I'm the education department, and we're never open, and if we are, it's barely," said Rojas, who is also the president of the American Federation of Government Employees' Local 506 at Coleman.

Under the First Step Act, inmates are scored through an algorithm that determines whether they are eligible for early release based on whether they are at "minimum" or "low" risk of re-offending and whether they were convicted of certain serious crimes, including violent offenses.

Then, qualifying inmates must participate in approved prison and work programs geared toward education and rehabilitation and accrue so-called time credits every month. Once the credits equal the time left on an inmate's sentence, the inmate can be transferred into "pre-release custody," such as a halfway house or home confinement. Some may also be eligible for supervised release, like probation.

The law is meant to reduce recidivism, ease the federal prison population and address racial disparities historically stemming from stiff drug-related sentences.

In January, the Justice Department published a final rule related to the time credit program in a larger effort to ensure inmates aren't being left behind and their hours are being properly counted. Still, prisoner advocacy groups, affected inmates and former federal prison officials have expressed skepticism, telling NBC News this month that there are thousands of inmates whose time credits aren't getting applied and that, in some cases, the inmates aren't released as early as they should be.

Bureau officials say they have worked to identify inmates who qualify for early release and "have no data which suggests inmates had their release dates delayed."

Rojas said employees like him who should be operating programs that can help inmates earn time credits aren't able to do so because they're being diverted to other correctional officer-type duties during the staffing shortage — a practice known as augmentation.

"Most of us are augmented," Rojas said. "There's no programming. If there's no programming, you can't do the First Step Act."

He said that the situation worsened when Trump mandated a hiring freeze across the Bureau of Prisons when he took office and that staffing levels tumbled nationwide, from more than 43,000 positions in 2016 to just over 35,000 currently.

Long hours, staff attrition and difficulties with retaining employees, particularly during the pandemic, have only left departments struggling, Rojas said. In June, a review of Coleman by the bureau deemed its operations "deficient," citing a 14% vacancy level in its correctional programs department.

"It really is dire," said Rojas, who has worked at the Florida prison for almost three decades. "I've seen the good, the bad, and now we're in the ugly."

At the Federal Detention Center in Miami, case manager Mary Melek had been doing double duty — she said she handled as many as 364 inmate cases last summer while also filling in for other roles. While her case load has fallen to a norm of about 150, handling so many inmates means the prison is four to six months behind in processing cases under the First Step Act.

She estimates that 10% of her cases involve inmates who probably could have already been released but remain incarcerated.

"If the daily rate to incarcerate a person is $100 — maybe more — imagine if releases are behind four months," said Melek, who is also a chief shop steward for the union representing her prison. "That is approximately $12,000-plus per inmate that could be saved."

Staff members and union leaders at other prisons say they are plagued by similar issues, which have affected morale, as well.

"The people who do the actual work, we're dying on the vine," said Aaron McGlothin, a union president at the federal prison in Mendota, California, which houses medium-security male inmates.

"We're overworked, underappreciated and just run into the ground," said McGlothin, who has worked in the federal prison system for 15 years. "With the First Step Act, this is the biggest failure I've seen of something that's a law. It's pathetic."

Justin Tarovisky, a union president at a federal facility in Hazleton, West Virginia, described morale as "terrible" as dozens of open positions have left workers to tackle more responsibilities.

"When you're 52 officers short, that means there are a lot of vacancies," Tarovisky said. "You want to talk about morale, how much do you care about a program specifically if you don't have staff to do it and the staff who are there have already been working 16 hours a day?"

A Bureau of Prisons spokesman said Thursday that officials are aware of the staffing issues and their effect on the First Step Act. Plans are in place to expand correctional officer hiring and fill positions related to the law by Sept. 30. In addition, the agency stressed that people hired to work at correctional facilities are informed that they might be expected to perform law enforcement functions as part of the "augmentation" process.

The bureau said staff training in facets of the First Step Act began in fall 2019 and that it "continues through to the present."

Frank Melendez, a case counselor and union president of a federal prison in Victorville, California, said insufficient training and a lack of policies around the First Step Act have made it challenging to ensure inmates get the answers they want.

"We've been augmented here for about seven months. That wears on people," said Melendez, who added that new executive command at his facility has helped to improve operations in recent months.

Across the federal prison system, the impending change in top leadership is being watched closely.

Attorney General Merrick Garland this month named Carvajal's replacement: Colette Peters, the director of Oregon's prison system. Peters, whose tenure starts Tuesday, wasn’t immediately made available for comment. Union leaders who spoke with NBC News say they are cautiously optimistic that bringing in someone from outside will be advantageous in cleaning up the accusations of cronyism and corruption.

"Carvajal has left such chaos in his wake," Rojas said. "From the union's point of view, I want to see the new director succeed."