WASHINGTON-Federal prison employees have falsified logs to claim they conducted mandatory cell checks and inmate counts when they didn't, according to a recent examination revealed by an internal Bureau of Prisons memo.
The Nov. 4 memo, issued by Bureau of Prisons Director Kathleen Hawk Sawyer, warned that falsifying documents is "very serious misconduct" that could expose staffers to criminal prosecution.
Federal prison officials declined to respond to questions about how many staffers may have been identified in the reviews.
A prison union official, meanwhile, said he doesn't believe the issue is widespread, and the real issue is chronic understaffing.
The memo comes as the Justice Department reviews similar allegations of misconduct related to the August suicide of accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein.
For months, federal authorities have been examining whether guards assigned to Epstein's unit at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Manhattan slept through mandatory checks in the hours before he was found hanging from a bedsheet, and whether the guards falsified the logs accounting for their time on duty.
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Epstein's death, which has spawned multiple federal investigations, prompted a shakeup in leadership at the Bureau of Prisons, with Hawk Sawyer being put in charge. It is her second stint as director of the nation's largest prison system, with 177,000 inmates.
Reviews of facilities show that "some staff members have failed to perform rounds and complete counts on housing units while documenting that they have," Hawk Sawyer wrote.
Those checks are "vital to maintaining the safety of staff and inmates and the security of our facilities," she wrote.
"Failure to conduct rounds, complete counts and providing inaccurate information in government systems and documents are considered very serious allegations of misconduct by the agency," the director wrote.
Employees could face discipline or criminal prosecution, she wrote.
Understaffing extends to prison where Epstein killed himself
Prison union representatives have long warned that staffing shortages throughout the prison system, and frequent overtime shifts to fill the gaps, have taken their toll on officers and compromised security.
That includes the Manhattan facility where Epstein died. At the time of his suicide, there were more than 30 staff vacancies, union officials said. Prison supervisors regularly assigned civilian staffers to work guard duty in order to plug unfilled officer positions, the officials said.
Ten of the 18 staffers who reported for duty on the midnight-to-8 a.m. shift-the one on which Epstein was found dead-were working overtime, according to federal prison records. On the previous shift, 4 p.m. to midnight, six of the 20 staffers were working overtime.
Shane Fausey, national president of the prison workers union, characterized the memo as a distraction from the staffing crisis and said he doesn't believe there is widespread falsification of records.
"We're trying to figure out right now what the intent of the memo is," Fausey said. "In order for a prison to function correctly, you have to have enough officers to make it safe."
"This is a distraction from current conditions in which officers are trying to accomplish the mission with one arm tied behind their backs," he said.
Staffing issues tied to violence?
Indeed, lawmakers and union officials sounded the alarm years before Epstein's death, highlighting prison operations in which staffers and inmates have been endangered mostly due to deep staffing shortages.
Only days before last year's murder of gangster Whitey Bulger at a West Virginia federal prison, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and lawmakers from West Virginia and Pennsylvania warned then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions of the looming dangers.
Manchin cited the 2013 murder of officer Eric Williams at the United States Penitentiary Canaan in Pennsylvania and the 2018 killings of two inmates at the West Virginia lockup where Bulger was beaten to death.
The lawmakers suggested that the practice of deploying civilian prison workers-teachers, nurses, kitchen workers and counselors-to fill officer vacancies was unsafe. That's because staffers aren't prepared and inmates are left unmonitored.
The practice, known as "augmentation," has been outlined in a series of stories by USA TODAY beginning in 2016. Prison officials have defended the practice of assigning civilian staffers to guard duty, contending that all employees receive security training.
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"We are writing to express our deep concerns about the Bureau of Prisons' staffing practices, particularly the over-reliance on augmentation and the failure to follow clear congressional directives to hire more full-time correctional officers," the lawmakers wrote.
Two days after they sent the letter, Bulger was fatally beaten in his cell. The incident prompted questions about prison officials' decision to transfer the 89-year-old, wheelchair-bound inmate from Florida to the West Virginia facility, where he was killed hours after he arrived.
At the time, there were about 40 officer vacancies at the prison.
Since Bulger's murder, a hiring surge at the West Virginia prison has eliminated that shortage.
"I think she (Hawk Sawyer) has inherited a complicated mission," Fausey said. "I really don't think she knows how really bad it is."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Federal prison guards falsified records of cell checks, inmate counts