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Correctional officers at Lompoc prison raise concerns over proposed staff cuts

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Federal prison officials have called for a reduction in staff. It's hitting prisons nationwide and Lompoc correctional officers are speaking out, worried not only for their safety but for the residents in Lompoc.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons plans to cut more than 6,000 positions nationwide. Under the proposed plan, the federal prison in Lompoc could lose more than 60 positions.

With more than a dozen inmate walkaways and a riot within the last two years, correctional officers say they're already severely understaffed.

"Once someone is arrested, they have to go somewhere," said Justin Bender, a correctional officer and Local 3048 union member. "That's our job to keep the community, the staff, and the inmates safe. They don't just get locked up and go away. That's what most people do, they forget about them. But we are correctional officers, we are in there, we are stopping them from getting out. We help you sleep at night."

However, Bender says dozens of law enforcement positions will be left unfilled.

"Lompoc is cutting approximately 62 law enforcement positions and we were already vacant 74 and they expect us to cut these positions when we are in such a severe need of staff," Bender told KSBY News. "It's the type of place where you walk in, you don't know if you are walking out that day. That's from the warden down, it's anybody. If you walk in that institution, there's no guarantee you are going home."

Bender says there's a concern there will be less staff to respond to emergencies.

"With less staff, it is a huge safety concern," Bender said. "I do believe the community is at risk and so are the staff inside the prison."

The Bureau of Prisons disagrees, issuing a statement that reads:
"We are currently eliminating several thousand authorized positions that are currently vacant. These positions have been identified by the Department of Justice and Congress to be eliminated as part of an effort to "rightsize" the BOP authorized staffing levels in light of the significant decrease in the inmate population we experienced over the last 4 years. The elimination of these positions will not result in any staff members being displaced or any Reduction in Force and the BOP does not expect this to impact institutional operations or its overall ability to maintain a safe environment for inmates and staff. Likewise, we believe that reducing authorized positions will not have a negative impact on public safety.
The FY2018 budget has not yet been enacted. To the extent the FY2018 budget calls for the elimination of additional positions, the BOP will work with DOJ to effect such changes."

"They are taking people out of jobs and they are selling safety," said Taylor Gilbert, a correctional officer and Local 3048 union member.

U.S. Congressman Salud Carbajal opposes the Department of Justice order, saying:
"This decision not only cuts many good-paying jobs on the Central Coast but also irresponsibly puts our corrections officers at risk in an already understaffed facility. It represents a dangerous shift away from supporting our federal law enforcement and public safety officers, in favor of investing in the notoriously problematic and inhumane for-profit prison system. I hope the Administration sees the negative impact this decision has on our local community, as well as to the important gains we've made in reforming our criminal justice system, and reverses course." 

"The safety of Lompoc is a huge concern. By eliminating these positions, you are effectively not having enough staff there to possibly stop escape attempts or possibly stop someone from walking away," Bender said.

So what are the specific cuts? Union workers tell us they were informed that the Bureau of Prisons intends to reduce staff by 11.95 percent, meaning 62 already vacant positions in Lompoc would be lost, but the proposed budget calls for another 14.4 percent reduction in Bureau of Prison staff, resulting in more local job losses. 

Under the federal proposal, there will be no layoffs at the Lompoc prison. Instead, there is a hiring freeze in place for the 74 vacant positions.

Congress and the Department of Justice say the cuts are warranted because the prison population has decreased throughout the country.

Congress hasn't voted this budget through yet. It is to be finalized this week.

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