AFGE Local 4070 union workers calling for change at USP Thomson

THOMSON, Ill. (KWQC) - The union, AFGE Local 4070, which represents government employees at United States Penitentiary Thomson, says staffing levels are a major concern.

They’re now raising a red flag and calling on lawmakers to push for change.

Vice President of AFGE Local 4070 Jon Zumkehr said, "We're sounding the alarm due to the extreme level of staffing how short we are and we've reached out to congress about the staffing levels."

The maximum security facility currently has 1,038 male offenders.

USP Thomson employs over 400 people and is hoping to hire up to 200 more.

According to a spokesperson for the prison, “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.”

Zumkehr said the prison recently notified workers it plans to open a new program, which could add up to 600 inmates.

"We don't have any staffing for the first program but we want to open up a new program. They want to use a program called augmentation and the risky practice the union feels is dangerous to use and staff safety could be at risk.”

A Thomson prison spokesperson sent talking points to TV6, which described augmentation. They said, “Augmentation allows a facility to fill temporary gaps in security posts, as when an officer is on sick leave or is in training, with trained correctional workers without sacrificing safety and security. It is important to note that all institution employees are law enforcement officers trained to respond to emergencies and perform security duties as needed, not just our correctional officers.”

The union, however, said this is not a good practice.

"Augmentation is where they take staff members out of the regular duties and have them perform officer duties. For example, they would take a case manager, counselor, nurse, and different staff members to perform officer duties and nobody is there to perform their duties because they're performing officer duties at that time,” said Zumkehr.

Zumkehr explained this happens quite often and almost every day. He said this is generally how it goes: "they would come into work and management would tell them, like, "hey, you're working as a correctional officer today,” and with no notice they would just go into performing the duty as a correctional officer and not perform their job as a counselor or case manager."

Illinois Senator Dick Durbin released a statement to TV6, which reads, “For years, I have pushed the Trump Administration to stop dragging its feet on the dire under staffing crisis in our federal prisons. When it comes to Thomson, we have been working with BOP to ensure it is filling jobs efficiently and quickly so the prison can carry out its mission while protecting the safety of staff and inmates. We will continue to engage with local officials to address their concerns and questions going forward as more Thomson employees are hired.”

Congresswoman Cheri Bustos has been an advocate for Thomson and recently partnered with Senator Durbin and Senator Duckworth to secure funding and support its continued activation.

Bustos released a statement to TV6, which reads, “Hiring must be a priority at Thomson prison – for the safety of the hardworking men and women employed there, as well as the safety of the people housed there. That is why I am working to remove current barriers to hiring at the site, including recently touring the development of nearby housing and advocating for direct hiring authority at the prison. As a member of the House Appropriations Committee, I worked to secure Bureau of Prisons (BOP) salary and expense account increases, in order to support federal workers employed by BOP in Thomson and Pekin. I will continue to monitor this situation while supporting the hardworking men and women at Thomson prison.”

Zumkehr said, "The direct hire the union feels is vital to Thomson getting staffed. it takes out the middle… If we have a veteran qualified, then the veteran can come in and they can directly hire them for that position."

“This is why the union is sounding the alarm on this and that we are working with Congress and the Senate to address this problem because we feel that the staff safety on the inside and outside could be jeopardized if we don't have enough staffing,” said Zumkehr.

Zumkehr explained the First Step Act is in place to help with the re-entry of inmates and reforms at Federal Prisons, but he said it will be difficult to implement with the concerning low number of staff. "We also want to program the inmates and do our job but we're getting pulled away from our job," he said.

Pay is leading to the lack of filling staff positions, not housing, said Zumkehr.

He said, "Due to the pay in the area that's the number one problem. The housing isn't an issue. I know that was said before about housing. There's plenty of housing available in the surrounding areas. It comes down to pay."

Zumkehr told TV6 the union will continue to advocate for fair pay and increased staffing. He said, "They have the factories in the areas that are paying more than it'll pay to work in a prison. Why would you want to work in conditions in a prison when you get paid more to work in a factory?"

Editor's note: an earlier version of this article referred to the prison as AUSP Thomson. The facility is still listed on the Federal Bureau of Prison's database as AUSP, however, information provided by the prison itself says the proper name is USP Thomson.