Federal prison staffers earned $300 million in overtime pay in 2019; report highlights long-standing staffing gaps

Federal prison staffers logged 6.7 million overtime hours in 2019 at a cost of more than $300 million, highlighting chronic officer shortages across the system, the Justice Department’s inspector general found.

Corrections officers accounted for at least 70% of the extra hours, according to the report that acknowledged long-standing staffing gaps that have thrust teachers, nurses and kitchen workers into patrol assignments in inmate housing units and recreation yards.

While the Bureau of Prisons reported overall staffing vacancies of 7% in FY 2019, unfilled officer positions during the same period stood at 17% – more than double the number reported in 2017, the review concluded.

“Our analysis indicates that BOP’s staffing concerns were particularly acute for correctional officer positions,” the inspector general concluded.

At the same time, auditors found that much of the overtime money was being paid to a relatively small number of staffers. Of the bureau’s 31,126 employees reported overtime hours, 4,143 received $150.4 million in overtime payments, accounting for 50% of the costs.

“At the high-end, 31 employees earned over $100,000 in overtime,” the review found, including 17 officers. Yet the staffer receiving the largest overtime payout of $139,014 was listed as a “cook supervisor,” whose other pay pushed total earnings to more than $230,000.

The inspector general’s examination also identified seven staffers who had worked between 160 and 183.5 overtime hours in one or more pay periods, a crushing work schedule roughly equivalent to at least two full-time positions.

Staffing shortages have been a persistent challenge for the federal prison system.

In 2018, USA TODAY reported that hundreds of secretaries, teachers, counselors, cooks and medical staffers were tapped to fill guard posts throughout the system because of an insufficient number of officers.

More: Exclusive: As federal prisons run low on guards, nurses and cooks are filling in

The moves were made despite repeated warnings that the assignments placed unprepared employees at risk. And the practice has continued for years even though the agency has been rebuked by Congress and federal labor arbitrators.

Citing the staffing problems, a House panel in 2017 directed the agency to “curtail its over-reliance” on the extraordinary deployments known as augmentation, once reserved only for emergency operations.