Staff members at the federal prison in Thomson were stunned when the Bureau of Prisons announced they wanted to end the retention bonuses staffers had been receiving. Jon Zumkehr, president of Thompson Federal Prison AFGE Local 4070, spoke with Local 4 News about the loss of the retention bonus and what it means for the facility.

“To be clear, it’s something the director has to request to be removed,” said Zumkehr. “It’s not something that expires, it’s not something that just goes away. It’s something that the director of Bureau of Prisons has to request to be removed.”

 The idea of removing the bonus has already sent shock waves through the prison. “We have 147 staff saying they will leave Thompson if they remove the retention,” said Zumkehr. “We’re asking why would they even consider this, knowing that we’ve struggled, the state of Illinois has struggled to fill the Thompson prison. They’ve changed the mission; they want to cut the pay by 25% and add 1,000 new inmates.”

Zumkehr said they’d like to meet with Colette Peters, the head of the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to find out why the cuts are proposed. “We’ve requested to meet with the director, we’ve requested to say ‘hey here’s your own staffing numbers. We’re losing around 28 staff this month; we had two staff members quit this week. It doesn’t make any sense and then they want to add 1000 new inmates on top of that?”

Thomson Prison was the first prison in the federal system to receive a 25% retention bonus, said Zumkehr. “We got that because we’re a remote location and the quality of schools, the lack of childcare in this area. We have a lot of single parents and the pay of the factories in the local area, the pay of the Illinois State Department of Corrections – they pay more than we do, so we have to stay competitive, being in a remote location.”

Zumkehr said Peters hasn’t given a reason for the proposal to cut the bonus. “Why would they would cut it? It doesn’t make any sense. If you look at the data that we have, we lost 203 staff in the last two years with the retention. What’s going to happen if you cut the pay and add 1,000 new inmates?”

Fewer staff members will impact the programs offered at Thomson. “If you look at when we didn’t have the retention bonus, we relied on augmentation. That’s when you take the teachers, you take the counselors out of the classroom and then you put them in the unit.” Inmates can take programs like behavioral management and parenting classes, as well as job training classes like welding, that will help them after release. “If they complete that (the classes) and have good behavior, they can actually get out a little bit earlier. It’s an incentive to reward good behavior and actually to go to classes.”

A lack of teaching staff is a concern, according to Zumkehr. “We need the staff here and then we need to retain the quality of the current staff we have here. We spent all the money training the staff if they go to a different location, that investment we put here would be lost.” If there isn’t enough staff to run the classes, prisoners will still get credit, but they won’t obtain the information from the classes. “That’s the whole point, that we want to offer the classes for people who actually want to learn. The majority of people actually want to better themselves when they get out of prison. They can actually use the skills that they learned inside. I think we have five or six new teacher jobs opening up at Thompson. If they’re telling you they’re going to cut your pay by 25%, why would you want to work here?” That’s why we’re trying to get the director to say, ‘hey, we’re not going to cut the pay.”

Zumkehr says the BOP hasn’t reacted to the news of potential employee losses at Thomson, so they’re reaching out to members of Congress who represent the area. “We had over 1,000 letters to Congress so far from the staff at prison. We can contact our Congresspeople and go, ‘hey, do something. Stop the pay cuts at Thompson.”

The support from other labor unions in the area is appreciated, said Zumkehr. “We firmly believe with the awareness of what they’re trying to do will definitely stop them from cutting the pay. We have the support of the Quad City Labor Federation, AFL-CIO, AFGE, so we have the support behind us, it’s just getting them to listen.”