When Kristan Morgan joined the U.S. Bureau of Prisons three years ago, the 30-year-old nurse expected to spend her days caring for the chronically sick and injured inside the nation's largest correctional system.
What she didn't expect: Being abruptly plucked from the busy medical unit in Tallahassee to pull guard duty in cell blocks — including a wing for solitary confinement.
"We get a radio and set of keys, and we don't know which keys fit which doors," said Morgan, who often reports to guard duty in scrubs and running shoes because there are no extra officer uniforms.
Hundreds of secretaries, teachers, counselors, cooks and medical staffers were tapped last year to fill guard posts across the Bureau of Prisons because of acute officer shortages and overtime limits, according to prison records reviewed by USA TODAY and staff interviews.
The moves were made despite repeated warnings that the assignments placed unprepared employees at risk. And the practice has continued for years even though the agency has been rebuked by Congress and federal labor arbitrators.
"It puts inmate safety at risk and our own security at risk. When we play officer, we are not equipped," said Morgan, a local union official. "We are not familiar with the housing units. The inmates know exactly who we are and what our limitations are."
Still, Morgan continued, "I've been ordered to do it. I have no choice."