Federal prison officials get bonuses as staffing shortages, management problems persist
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 to the 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 non security 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."
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 allegations by whistleblowers in 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.