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Union: USP Thomson using nurses and counselors as correctional officers due to understaffing

Published: Jun. 25, 2021 at 6:48 PM CDT
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THOMSON, Illinois (KWQC) - The union, AFGE Local 4070, which represents government employees at United States Penitentiary Thomson, says the prison is so understaffed they are pulling nurses, counselors, and case managers to work as correctional officers. AFGE Local 4070 held another job fair Friday to try to fill over one hundred vacancies.

“Your nurses, counselors, case managers, teachers, you take them out of the classroom and put them in an officer role,” says Jon Zumkehr, AFGE 4070′s union president.

The understaffing puts extra stress on employees.

“We are all law enforcement but you still have your job and nobody is [able] do your job. Now you have an extra job on top of that. Just to do the daily job of transporting the inmates to the showers, taking them to the recreation center, we have to augment daily just to do that,” says Zumkehr.

The union president says the prison struggles to retain employees because of low pay, mandatory overtime, and a lack of housing and child care in Thomson. He says all contribute to the average 18 month turnover rate.

“Childcare is an issue in Thomson. There isn’t a lot of child care. Housing is another big issue here, there isn’t much housing around in the local area,” says Zumkehr.

The union has been pushing for direct hire to cut wait time for job applicants from six months to one week. They are also requesting a twenty five percent retention bonus. The understaffing cuts into programs for inmates like education and counseling.

“If we don’t focus on the retention and retaining our officers, it’s just going to be an endless cycle and loop,” says Zumkehr.

In a letter signed by Congresswoman Bustos, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, and Senator Tammy Duckworth to the director of the Bureau of Prisons dated April 16, 2021, the letter reads, “We write to follow up on our letter sent on August 2, 2020 to again support the efforts of the correctional staff at the United States Penitentiary (USP) Thomson to recruit qualified staff to work at the facility. As outlined in our August 2020 letter, we support the request that USP Thomson be included in the Chicago-Naperville, IL-IN-WI GS Locality, which would increase compensation for Thomson employees and help with recruitment. Additionally, we support their request that Thomson correctional officers be provided a 25 percent retention bonus. The high number of unstaffed positions has led to a number of troubling issues at USP Thomson, including significant overtime and reliance on augmentation. For instance, AFGE Local 4070 has informed our offices that USP Thomson leadership uses 20 augmentations daily and more than 2,000 overtime shifts per month to keep the facility functioning. In addition, since the start of 2020, there have been five inmate deaths from fights or suicides that may have been prevented with additional staff.”

Congresswoman Cheri Bustos (D) released a statement to TV6, which reads, “We must do everything in our power to bring new talent to Thomson Prison in order to address their staffing needs, strengthen the local workforce and support our community’s economy.”

Bustos is also calling on the Bureau of Prisons and Office of Personnel Management to provide Thomson direct hire authority to speed up the process.

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