Just days after federal prison officials announced plans for a nationwide reduction in staff, a representative of workers at the Lompoc prison complex said he is fearful for the safety of his fellow employees, as well as the community at large.

Justin Bender, a spokesman for the Local 3048 Federal Correctional Officers union, did not mince words when expressing his concerns about the across-the-board cuts, which were announced this past week by the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

The Bureau of Prisons intends to reduce staff by 11.95 percent, which would result in the loss of about 62 positions at the Lompoc Federal Correctional Complex, Bender said. While most of those positions are currently unfilled, the proposed federal budget calls for another 14.4-percent reduction in Bureau of Prisons staff, which would result in even more job losses locally.

“This has serious adverse effects for the officers working inside the prison, and the surrounding community, by putting everyone at risk,” Bender said. “Lompoc has had attempted escape(s), riots, disturbances, etc., in recent times, and lowering the staffing levels will only further put the community at risk.

“I am in fear of an officer being killed or the safety of the community being jeopardized, and now I am in even more fear,” he added. “I feel as though we are responsible to inform the community that their safety and well-being is at risk due to these budget cuts and staffing reductions.”

Messages left Friday for the Lompoc complex’s public information officer were not returned, but Bureau of Prisons officials have expressed that they don't believe the cuts will have a negative impact on public safety.

Bender said that opinion was not shared by many of the 450-plus workers at the Lompoc complex, where he said the overall mood is not particularly rosy.

“It’s depressing,” he said. “Staff are more depressed that Congress and the politicians want to remove these jobs. It’s absolutely depressing. You think you can promote and have upward mobility and move on to different job titles, but that’s gonna be a thing of the past.”

Bender is speaking out, he said, in an effort to inspire change. He said he’s already reached out to members of the government, and recently spent a day with Congressman Salud Carbajal at the Lompoc prison.

On Friday, Carbajal expressed support for the prison employees.

“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," he said. "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 (Trump) administration sees the negative impact this decision has to our local community, as well as to the important gains we’ve made in reforming our criminal justice system, and reverses course.”

Bender agreed.

"This affects everybody," he said. "They’re cutting jobs from the warden down. And it’s not just locally they’re doing this; they’re doing it nationwide at 120 prisons. They’re cutting 6,000 positions and every single position they’re cutting is a law enforcement position.”

While staffing levels at the prison have dropped recently, Bender said that they actually increased in 2016. Since then, though, a hiring freeze was put in place in 2017 and now the proposed cutbacks.

“With staffing cuts comes the worry of what comes next,” said Bender, who has worked at the Lompoc prison for eight years. “Are they gonna start closing prisons? Who knows? Imagine if the prison in Lompoc closes. It’s the second-biggest employer in Lompoc. Think about the economic impact that would have on the community if it got worse.”

Still, he said that public safety, and the safety of the correctional officers, is most important.

“People tend to forget, they lock up all these people for all these heinous crimes — murders, child molestation, everything — but they forget that there’s people like me and all the other staff out there that have to watch these guys and deal with them 24/7 on a daily basis,” he said. “Definitely, if we had more staff it would be greatly appreciated.”

The news of the cuts came in the same week that the Lompoc prison reported another walkaway from the complex’s minimum-security camp.

Carl Henderson, 47, was reported missing Wednesday. He had been serving a 210-month sentence for offenses in Ohio that included conspiracy to distribute PCP and being a felon in possession of ammunition.

Henderson’s apparent escape from the prison was the fifth reported by prison officials since the start of 2017.

While Bender attempted to ease some community concern by noting that the inmates in the minimum-security camp are typically nonviolent offenders, he said that he’d put the blame for the walkaways on too-low staffing levels, if anything.

“We do everything we can to prevent them,” he said of the early exits by inmates. “We don’t just let these guys have free rein out there. We do our jobs. But when you have one officer out there for 300 inmates, it gets hard.”

Those who leave the prison legally — after serving their full sentences — are also at risk due to the cuts, Bender said.

“They’re gonna be cutting re-entry programs,” he said. “Those are there to help these inmates rehabilitate and come back out into (a normal) environment. Well, those are now gone. Who’s gonna be there to rehabilitate these inmates? That’s the goal of the Bureau of Prisons.”

Bender said he was hopeful that the proposed moves would be stopped.

“I firmly believe that FCC Lompoc has the best staff there is, and we do an amazing job with the little support we get, but you can only stretch things so far before it breaks,” he said. “Our staff do not deserve this, nor does the community we serve and protect.”

Willis Jacobson covers the city of Lompoc for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @WJacobsonLR.

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