Juan Ramon Rodriguez-Barbosa, 47 years old, hung himself and died on May 26 at FCI Mendota, a medium-security prison west of Fresno. Rodriguez-Barbosa was serving time for illegally reentering the United States after being deported, said The Associated Press.
He was found hanging in the prison’s segregated housing unit by officers doing their 30-minute required checks on inmates. The officers called for assistance, but staff members who normally would have responded were unable to leave posts where they were filling in as correctional officers.
This prison, like many run by the U.S. government, was understaffed, said sources who spoke with the AP on conditions of anonymity. The death, which appeared to be suicide, raises questions as to whether the agency can carry out its mandated duties to ensure the safety of prisoners and staff members, the AP said.
Nearly one-third of federal correctional officer jobs are vacant in the U.S. This shortage has led to prisons using cooks, nurses, teachers and other free staff to guard inmates. The Bureau of Prisons says that all of their prison workers are trained as correctional officers, regardless of job titles.
The Bureau of Prisons insisted that at FCI Mendota there were appropriate numbers of staff and that staff members responding to the call “immediately initiated life-saving measures” in an effort to save Rodriguez-Barbosa.
Hours before the death, FCI Mendota Warden Douglas White wrote to the entire staff to complain of unfavorable media coverage that “painted a negative image” of the prison. He said it was “time to stop talking and printing negative information” about the staff there.
The Bureau of Prisons has launched what it calls a “hiring frenzy,” hiring 4,000 staff in 2020, with plans to hire 500 more. A spokesperson said the agency has held about 20 hiring events this year, both virtually and in-person.
“We absolutely would like to see as many hiring initiatives in the works as possible,” the agency said in a statement. “Hiring events are only one component of our recruitment efforts, and while we want them to proceed as planned, due to institutional needs, they may be postponed.”
Two were held in May, one at Mendota and another for federal jails in New York City—facilities that a federal judge recently said were “run by morons” where inmates are kept in “inhuman” conditions.