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Leavenworth prison union says staffing shortages are the real cause of ongoing ‘lockdown’

Signs on a van demand the end of a lockdown at a federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas.
Tricia Brown
Friends and families of inmates at the federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas, held rallies outside the facility to demand the end of a lockdown that has suspended visitation since March 1.

Families have been blocked from visiting inmates since March 1. A union president for prison staff believes an investigation justifying the tightened rules is dragging on as a way to circumvent the union’s contract.

The president of a labor union representing employees at the federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas, alleges prison officials are letting an investigation into a firearm entering the facility drag on as a way to circumvent the staffing rules in the union’s contract.

Russ Gildner, union president for the American Federation of Government Employees Local 919, said the prison is understaffed by about 30 positions. He said by going into emergency operations, prison leaders can bypass the union’s contract and order staff, like counselors and other positions, to serve as prison guards.

“Staff that work in education and recreation,” Gildner said, “are being reassigned and are performing work as officers.”

Gildner said that means that the prison is not currently offering programs like educational classes during the lockdown. That contradicts previous statements from prison officials that said inmates still have access to those programs amid the investigation.

The Associated Press reported in 2021 that nearly one-third of the correctional officer positions at federal prisons were vacant and prison officials used cooks, teachers and nurses to serve as corrections officers who guard inmates.

Prison officials said the Leavenworth facility that houses about 1,800 inmates is in what’s called modified operations because of the investigation. Families of inmates say it’s effectively a lockdown. Officials suspended visits since March 1 and restricted inmates' movement within the facility. The Federal Bureau of Prisons also brought in outside staff to assist in the investigation.

A sign in front of the Leavenworth federal prison shows that it is under surveillance.
Nomin Ujiyediin
Kansas News Service
Friends and families of inmates at Leavenworth federal prison have not heard from their loved ones housed at the facility for more than a month.

Amid the investigation, friends or family members of inmates have had little contact with their loved ones who are housed at the Leavenworth facility. They have gone more than a month without talking to them and have only been able to communicate through rarely mailed letters from the inmates.

The Kansas City Star reports the inmates are living in inhumane conditions, with some getting little food and others losing access to water.

Sara Kesler, an official for the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ North Central Regional Office, previously said the modified operations mean the prison has changed inmates’ movement within the prison and changed access to prison programs and services. The prison warden may add temporary security measures to make sure the prison remains safe and in order.

Gildner said the prison using modified operations allows officials to claim the facility is in an emergency under false pretenses.

“They just created this term ‘modified operations,’” Gildner said, “like it gives them some sort of right to circumvent that collective bargaining agreement.”

Kesler said in an email that the prison stands by its original statement and declined to comment on Gildner’s allegations.

Kansas Republican Sen. Jerry Moran’s office said in an emailed statement to the Kansas News Service that he has been briefed on the situation and he has been in contact with both the prison officials and the union.

“(I) have been assured that there will be operational changes at USP Leavenworth in the coming days,” Moran said in the statement. “I have heard from Kansans who are concerned about the welfare of their loved ones incarcerated at the federal penitentiary, and I will continue to monitor the situation.”

Meanwhile, families of inmates continue to have very little contact with their loved ones who are housed at the facility. They held rallies outside of the prison, yet still have not been satisfied with answers from prison officials on when the lockdown will be lifted.

Tricia Brown, whose fiance is housed in Leavenworth, said she’s called prison officials multiple times but no one will let her know when she may be able to contact her fiance again.

“It’s like pulling teeth,” Brown said.

Dylan Lysen reports on social services and criminal justice for the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Threads @DylanLysen or email him at dlysen (at) kcur (dot) org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Updated: April 11, 2024 at 2:24 PM CDT
This news story has been updated to include comments from U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran.
As the Kansas social services and criminal justice reporter, I want to inform our audience about how the state government wants to help its residents and keep their communities safe. Sometimes that means I follow developments in the Legislature and explain how lawmakers alter laws and services of the state government. Other times, it means questioning the effectiveness of state programs and law enforcement methods. And most importantly, it includes making sure the voices of everyday Kansans are heard. You can reach me at dlysen@kcur.org, 816-235-8027 or on Threads, @DylanLysen.