BIG SPRING, Tex. — On a recent rainy day, more than 400 sex offenders, gang members and other inmates at the federal prison in this West Texas town weathered the storm by crowding into a three-story building.
Two guards were on duty. One was a uniformed correctional officer, the other a health worker in civilian clothes pitching in because there were not enough regular officers.
Outside, along the security fences surrounding the sprawling prison campus, a worker who normally offers counseling to inmates patrolled in a vehicle, armed with three weapons. And in a unit reserved for the most dangerous inmates, a clerk from the commissary policed the corridors.
The staffing scramble at Big Spring is playing out at federal prisons across the country. As the Trump administration has curtailed hiring in its quest to reduce the size of the government, some prisons are so pressed for guards that they regularly compel teachers, nurses, secretaries and other support staff to step in.
It was not uncommon in the past for prisons to occasionally call upon support workers as substitute guards, especially in emergencies. The practice, which leaves other prison functions short-handed, came under criticism during the Obama administration, which moved in its final year to cut back.
But as the shortage of correctional officers has grown chronic under President Trump — and the practice of drawing upon other workers has become routine — many prisons have been operating in a perpetual state of staffing turmoil, leaving some workers feeling ill-equipped and unsafe on the job, according to interviews and internal documents from the Bureau of Prisons.
Dozens of workers from prisons across the country said inmates had become more brazen with staff members and more violent with one another. At a prison in West Virginia, violent incidents increased almost 15 percent in 2017 from the year before, according to data obtained by The New York Times. Workers blame the problems on their depleted numbers and the need to push often inexperienced staff members into front-line correctional roles, changes not lost on the prison population.
“When you’re an officer and in the units for eight hours a day, you get to know the inmates,” said a teacher at a Florida prison who was not authorized to speak to the news media. “You can tell when a fight is about to happen. I don’t have that background.” The teacher added: “The inmates see this and they know we are outnumbered. They know we have people working in the units who don’t have the slightest idea what to do.”
“A big fear people have is, if I get assaulted, who is going to come help me?” said Serene Gregg, an employees’ union official at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan. A former correctional officer, she recently became a case manager, a job that involves providing counseling and serving as a liaison between inmates and the court system.
According to the bureau, assaults on prison staff rose more than 8 percent last year from the previous year.
There are also concerns about the growing amount of contraband getting past depleted prison staffs. In Big Spring, people have walked up to the double security fence in broad daylight, with no guard in sight, and tossed drugs, cellphones or other items to inmates. Sometimes staff members find out only because the contraband has not cleared both fences and is marooned in between.
Prison workers fret most about cellphones, which are banned because they allow inmates to attempt crimes. Big Spring has issued bulletin after bulletin to workers about the growing presence of cellphones, which can fetch as much as $1,500 inside the prison, according to documents reviewed by The Times. One officer found a cellphone hidden at the bottom of a water jug; another found a charger concealed in a wall next to an inmate’s bunk.
This year, prison workers have recovered over 200 cellphones in secure areas of Big Spring, according to data obtained by The Times. Last year, they found 69; in 2016, only one.
“Everyone heard about that first cellphone,” said Curtis Lloyd, a counselor at the prison. “Now it’s like it’s raining cellphones.”
The Times interviewed about 60 employees of the Bureau of Prisons, some of whom, like Mr. Lloyd and Ms. Gregg, were able to speak openly because they are protected by their status as officials in the prison employees’ union. The bureau did not authorize them to talk, and many other workers who spoke to The Times requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation.
The Bureau of Prisons provided some information, but declined an interview request and, in response to a detailed list of facts in this article, said it had no comment. Big Spring allowed a reporter to tour its facilities, but declined a request to interview its warden and said it forwarded other questions to bureau headquarters. The other prisons named in this article did not respond to requests to interview their wardens.
In April, Big Spring prison was notified by the Department of Homeland Security that a man who had been caught smuggling people across the border from Mexico had been texting by cellphone with an inmate, according to government documents reviewed by The Times. The texts suggested that the inmate, who has a history of illegally transporting immigrants across the border, might have been involved in the smuggling operation.
Workers at the prison were dismayed to hear talk of the incident. “My jaw dropped,” said Paula Chavez, a teacher and union official at the prison whose son, a correctional officer, was beaten by inmates in May, she said, when he tried to confiscate a cellphone.
Ms. Chavez said she voted for Mr. Trump but questioned his administration’s approach to prison staffing. “By weakening prisons,” she said of the president, “he is weakening the border.”
More Prisoners, Fewer Guards
Although staffing shortages existed before Mr. Trump took office, a governmentwide hiring freeze just four days into his administration pushed the bureau’s employment into a downward spiral.
The freeze was lifted elsewhere in April 2017, but it stayed in place at the bureau for several more months. From December 2016 to March 2018, the number of correctional officer vacancies, including supervisory roles, grew by almost 64 percent, to 2,137 from 1,306, according to the bureau — nearly 12 percent of all correctional officer positions.
In the last two years of the Obama administration, the bureau increased the number of correctional officers it hired, with 2,644 in 2016. Last year, the number dropped to 372. The administration has also begun eliminating about 5,000 unfilled jobs within the bureau, including about 1,500 correctional positions.
Cuts are occurring even though Congress increased the bureau’s budget for salaries and expenses by $106 million this year, and both Republican and Democratic lawmakers have called for hiring more correctional officers. As of March, there were 15,927 officers in federal prisons.
Because the bureau is focused on eliminating vacant positions, a press officer said, the cuts “will not have a negative impact on public safety or on our ability to maintain a safe environment for staff and inmates.”
During the last years of the Obama administration, the inmate population shrank as the Justice Department moved away from mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenses, a change that Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, has since reversed.
The bureau expects the inmate population to grow by 2 percent this year and 1 percent next year. The Trump administration is also temporarily transferring at least 1,600 immigration detainees to prisons.
Facing a growing inmate population and diminished staffs, many workers say they are bracing themselves.
“It can be scary, especially as a woman,” she said. “As soon as you come into the unit, they crowd you.”
There are three main ways federal prisons address the problem of too few correctional officers: They temporarily push other workers into correctional roles, they require officers to work overtime or they leave posts vacant.
Documents and interviews with prison workers from seven federal facilities show that correctional posts have regularly gone unstaffed for entire shifts.
On at least eight occasions between June 29 and July 4 last year, for example, correctional posts in housing units went unassigned at the prison in Victorville, Calif., documents show.
In New York, the Mexican drug lord Joaquín Guzmán Loera, known as El Chapo, is locked up in the most secure wing of the Metropolitan Correctional Center, where he awaits trial, accused in the murder of thousands.