WASHINGTON – The federal prison system paid $1.6 million in bonuses to its top executives and wardens during the past two years despite chronic staffing shortages and sharp critiques of prison management leveled by Congress, according to records obtained by USA TODAY.
The payments – the latest in a series of annual awards – ranged from $5,400 to $23,800 per official. The largest sums went to the agency’s leadership team, including $20,399 tothe U.S. Bureau of Prisons’ acting Director, Hugh Hurwitz, and the wardens of prisons who confronted what union officials described as dangerous shortages of guards.
Joseph Coakley, who managed the maximum security complex in Hazelton, West Virginia, where notorious gangster Whitey Bulger and two other inmates were murdered last year, received $20,399. Coakley, who retired this year, collected an additional $34,500 in awards paid out during 2015 and 2016 for his work at Hazelton and at a facility in Beckley, West Virginia.
Bulger’s murder drew a harsh spotlight to conditions at the Hazelton prison complex, where in addition to the violence, authorities had long grappled with officer vacancies that persisted at federal prisons across the country.
A shortage of prison officers forced wardens to tap secretaries, teachers, nurses, kitchen workers and other nonsecurity staffers to patrol cellblocks, solitary confinement units and prison yards, often with little preparation for their new roles.
Known as “augmentation,” the practice was condemned by lawmakers after the scope of its use was outlined last year by USA TODAY.
Prison officials would not reveal how they decide on the size of wardens’ bonuses, citing security concerns.
“Bonuses are given based upon work performance,” the bureau said in a written statement. “Information contained in the performance award justifications may relate to safety and security and therefore, would not be releasable.”
‘Grounds for serious concern’
At least two congressional committees raised questions about the widespread deployment of civilian staffers to cover officer vacancies and other management issues in the federal prison system. The Bureau of Prisons is the nation’s largest correctional system, responsible for managing 121 facilities that house 180,000 inmates.
Last year, Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Chairman Ron Johnson, R-Wis., cataloged troubling allegationsby whistleblowersin a letter to Hurwitz, including sexual harassment complaints against bureau officials, prison security breaches, assaults on guards and persistent staffing shortages.
“These allegations are grounds for serious concern,” Johnson wrote.
Senate committee investigators, in addition to reviewing the allegations of mismanagement, questioned the bonus awards.
“Please explain how BOP decides to promote, reward or give bonuses to staff, including those involved in sexual abuse allegations,” a committee investigator wrote to one bureau staffer last year. The investigator’s questions, reviewed by USA TODAY, did not specifically identify officials accused of sexual abuse.
Addressing its use of civilian staffers to cover guard posts, the bureau said, “Staffing decisions are based on the needs of the facility, and augmentation is one tool to ensure critical correctional officer posts are covered on a daily basis. All wardens are responsible for ensuring a safe and orderly running of correctional facilities and use every means possible to ensure the safety of staff, inmates and the public.”
Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen indicated in an interview with USA TODAY that Justice was reviewing staffing across the BOP. He said personnel levels did not jeopardize safety.
“Everyone who is trained to work at a federal prison learns to participate in the security role,” he said. “But we’re looking at that and plan to do whatever makes sense.”
Notorious Boston crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger was found dead in prison. He eluded authorities for 16 years before being captured. USA TODAY
Guard shortages and large bonuses
At the Hazelton prison, staffing has been a constant concern among union officials, particularly in the weeks before Bulger’s murder Oct. 30, 2018. In a letter to federal lawmakers earlier that month, Justin Tarovisky, executive vice president of the prison workers union, noted that Hazelton was short 40 officers and expressed deep frustration with Warden Coakley’s management.
“This administration is taking our safety for granted,” Tarovisky said.
After learning that Coakley collected thousands in bonus money for his work at Hazelton, Tarovisky said, “I wish I could say I was surprised. These wardens are using augmentation (covering guard positions with civilian staffers) to avoid paying overtime to officers, and they are being rewarded for it. It’s sad.”
Coakley declined to comment.
Prison officials and the Justice Department’s inspector general have been reviewing the conditions at Hazelton during the time of Bulger’s murder and the two other deaths at the prison. A separate criminal investigation into Bulger’s killing also continues.
After Coakley’s retirement, Tarovisky said, conditions have steadily improved under the leadership of the prison’s new warden, Bryan Antonelli. Union officials said hiring is on pace to wipe out the officer shortage as soon as next week.
“It’s a totally differently environment,” Tarovisky said.
At other prisons, the staffing problems persist, and the bonus payments generated fresh outrage.
“This is completely disheartening,” said Joe Rojas, union chief at the bureau’s largest prison complex in Coleman, Florida, where he said a staffing report showed that the complex was down about 200 people, including officers and other support personnel, from its authorized 1,370 staffers.
The warden at Coleman, Roy Cheatham, is listed as having received a $20,399 bonus during the most recent distribution in 2017-2018.
In an effort to plug some of the personnel holes, Rojas said, officers from a storm-damaged prison facility in Marianna, Florida, near Tallahassee, work on temporary assignments at Coleman.
Cheatham could not be reached for comment.
“How can you justify these bonus payments when we don’t even have enough people to staff the place?” Rojas said. “There is no way to justify this.”
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