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Thomson Federal Prison in crisis mode: staff shortages contribute to low morale, exhaustion and high turnover

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Thomson prison

USP Thomson in Thomson, Ill.

Staffing shortages have put the United States Penitentiary (USP) Thomson in crisis mode, leading to exhaustion and low morale among correctional officers and an increase in safety concerns and deaths among prisoners, according to prison and elected officials, who are calling on the U.S. government to address the problems immediately.

USP Thomson is a high-security facility that currently houses 1,333 male offenders; 1,243 at the main facility, and 90 at the adjacent satellite camp. 

Jonathan Zumkehr, president of AFGE (American Federation of Government Employees) Local 4070, Council of Prison Locals No. 33, AFL-CIO, is sounding the alarm on a staffing shortage so severe, employees from other departments are being used daily to act as guards. 

"We are the second-highest security prison in the federal system, but we are the lowest staffed," Zumkehr said Tuesday. "We have a pay issue and retention issue, we are a hard-to-fill location, but the director of the (Bureau of Prisons) refuses to request retention from the (Office of Personnel and Management). We are asking for 25% retention (raise) for all staff. As a cost savings, they cut all (temporary) staff to USP Thomson."

Zumkehr sent a letter May 14 to members of Congress.

"Recent staffing (and) strength reports reveal a shortage of epic proportions," Zumkehr wrote. "The following details are alarming: Correctional services is at 69% (staffing) with 110 vacancies. Correctional services overtime is 2,009 incidents of overtime per month."

Zumkehr said another concern was the use of augmentation, the process of using staffers from other prison departments to assist with guard duties. Those staff can include administrative, educational, counseling, medical and kitchen employees. 

"Maximum use of augmentation is used daily just to effectuate basic inmate needs such as showers and recreation," Zumkehr said. "The abusive levels of augmentation at USP Thomson are that on some days we augment over 60 staff per day."

Also troubling to him is the high rate of turnover, with the average employee staying only 18 months, resulting in low seniority and experience. A recent visit to USP Thomson by union representatives revealed that three officers working in one unit had been employed for 18 months, three months and two months, respectively.

"USP Thomson is suffering from extremely low morale," Zumkehr wrote. "This is reflective of the abusive levels of overtime and mandatory overtime, which leads to correctional fatigue and exhaustion. Fatigue and exhaustion lead to reduced productivity, decreased cognitive processes, problem solving, concentration and reasoning and an increase in sick leave.

"Working under the influences of extreme exhaustion can lead to an increase in errors and critical thinking. Employee turnover and retention are a direct result of the staffing crisis and conditions that most employees deem unbearable. Eighteen months appears to be the limit of tolerance.

"Most concerning to us are the long-term effects on both the physical and mental health of the employees of Thomson," Zumkehr wrote. "I would be failing in my representational duties if I did not say candidly that USP Thomson is experiencing a staffing crisis, bar none in the Bureau of Prisons. A review of the overall conditions witnessed at USP Thomson, without immediate intervention, have cultivated an environment with catastrophic potential."

Zumkehr said immediate intervention was necessary to alleviate the staffing crisis and reduce immediate dangers facing the employees.  

"It should be the moral obligation of the Federal Bureau of Prisons to send immediate assistance and relief to those that have worked the hardest supporting the mission," Zumkehr wrote. 

U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Moline; U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill.; and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. sent a joint letter April 16 to Michael Carvajal, director of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, and Kathleen McGettigan, acting director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, asking for an increase in compensation for Thomson employees, similar to what prison employees are paid at the two Chicago-area facilities. 

The joint letter was the followup to a letter sent Aug. 2, 2020, noting the same concerns. Since the start of 2020, "there have been five inmate deaths from fights or suicides that may have been prevented with additional staff," the letter stated. The most recent death occurred in February 2021, when a 41-year-old prisoner was found unresponsive in his cell and later died from his injuries.

"As you know, there are several factors that hamper the ability of USP Thomson to fill vacant positions. These include limited housing options, long commutes to the facility and lack of child care services," the lawmakers wrote.

"Given the significant differences in pay between USP Thomson and similar opportunities in Chicago, it is difficult for the facility in Thomson to maintain their already limited staffing levels, as employees can make significantly more at, for example, RRM Chicago and MCC Chicago. These issues are only compounded by the lack of amenities in the Thomson area as discussed above."

Bustos, Duckworth and Durbin urged Carvajal and McGettigan to offer a 25% retention bonus and "to use these and any other tools necessary to quickly address the ongoing staffing shortages at USP Thomson."


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