WASHINGTON — If it worked for Hollywood, federal prison workers hope it works for them.
Prison union officials are adopting the theme of the Oscar-winning movie Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri in an effort to call attention to dramatic cuts, warning that staffers could die if authorities proceed with a plan to eliminate more than 6,000 positions.
Set to appear as early as this week near the Bureau of Prisons’ largest complex outside Orlando, the three prison billboards are expected to depict the image of a coffin, along with the message: “Budget cuts lead to deaths in federal prisons.”
Not unlike the movie, in which a mother seeks to shame a local sheriff for his failure solve her daughter’s murder, union officials are trying to call attention to staffers’ plight inside the vast federal prison system.
The Trump administration is in the midst of an estimated 14% staffing reduction systemwide to include about 1,800 officer positions. The prisons bureau has said most of the positions slated for elimination are vacant.
Last month, USA TODAY reported that hundreds of secretaries, teachers, counselors, cooks and medical staffers were tapped last year to fill guard posts across the system because of acute officer shortages and overtime limits.
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.
“We want the public to know that we’re trying to avoid the real possibility of loss of life here,” said Joe Rojas, president of the local union, who is leading the media campaign. “Yes, it’s a very strong message; it’s strong because we feel that strongly about it.”
Rojas said there was no intentional strategy to connect the union’s campaign to the movie. But he hoped its rollout might capitalize on the popularity of the film, which captured two Academy Awards on Sunday, including best actress for Frances McDormand.
Eliminating vacant positions
In a statement, the prison agency acknowledged that it is “eliminating several thousand vacant authorized positions…as they have been unfunded for sometime.”
“The elimination of these positions will not result in any staff members being displaced or any reduction in force, and the Bureau of Prisons does not expect this to impact institutional operations or its overall ability to maintain a safe environment for inmates and staff.
“The safety of staff, inmates, and the public is the highest priority for the BOP,” the agency said.
Carly Zipp, a spokeswoman for OUTFRONT Media, acknowledged that the company was working with the union.
“We are still reviewing the (advertisement) in the hopes of coming to an agreement,” Zipp said. She declined to elaborate on the advertisement’s content, saying it was part of the “review.”
Rojas said the union had identified three high-traffic locations near the prison complex to display its message. He said the union was paying $9,400 a month.
One of the locations, he said, was near the Citrus Bowl stadium.
“We want as many people as possible, because the situation is serious,” Rojas said.
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