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Federal prison officials have packed more beds into wards at correctional facilities to house rising inmate populations. Photo: US BOP via GAO)
Federal prison officials have packed more beds into wards at correctional facilities to house rising inmate populations. Photo: US BOP via GAO)

Will sequester make Federal prisons less safe?

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The sequester is upon us and Federal workers at facilities are bracing for across-the-board cuts that begin phasing in tomorrow. Tensions are particularly high in the country's Federal prison system.

Two different congressional reports released in the last year found that inmate overcrowding at Federal prisons like the one in Ray Brook, near Saranac Lake,
has already made it difficult for guards to maintain safety behind bars.

Attorney General Eric Holder says furloughing more corrections officers could make safety problems even worse.

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Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

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A chart provided as part of the September 2012 GAO report shows overcrowding in the Federal prison system. Image: GAO
A chart provided as part of the September 2012 GAO report shows overcrowding in the Federal prison system. Image: GAO
Last month, the Congressional Research Service issued a report describing the "historically unprecedented increase" in the number of inmates in Federal prisons nationwide, with more than 218,000 men and women now behind bars.

A separate report issued last September by Congress's General Accounting Officequestioned whether there are enough guards on duty in Federal prisons to maintain safety.

David Maurer is an expert on homeland security and justice issues who conducted the study for the GAO.

"When you pack more inmates into a fixed capacity, it increases the possibility of violent episodes," he said.

It places strains on the staff's ability to deliver services and operate in a safe environment. --David Maurer, homeland security and justice issues expert
"It places strains on the staff's ability to deliver services and operate in a safe environment."

Mauer's study found that overcrowding in the Federal system is growing, with some maximum security facilities holding 50 percent more inmates than they were designed for.

The most recent internal Bureau of Prisons survey found that the federal correction system is already operating with 3,200 fewer guards than are needed.

Dale Deshotel is president of the Council of Prison Locals, a union that represents 25,000 corrections officers.

"It's past critical, it's past dangerous, it's past sanity. It's insane. There's no way you can run a prison without supervision and we have proven it now with the life of this young man," Deshotel said.

Deshotel is referring to the murder of Eric Williams, a 34-year-old Federal corrections officer in Pennsylvania who was killed by an inmate Monday night.

Williams was the first prison guard to lose his life in the Federal system in the last five years.

A spokesperson for the Bureau of Prisons said the incident is still under investigation and declined to say whether it was linked to overcrowding and staffing levels.

Justice officials also declined to talk about how Federal prisons will implement the sequester, except to say that no furloughs will begin until April 21.

That will give prison wardens time to work out how staff cutbacks would be implemented.

In the past, congressional leaders including Sen. Charles Schumer have complained about overcrowding and understaffing at FCI Ray Brook in the Adirondacks.  Photo: US BOP
In the past, congressional leaders including Sen. Charles Schumer have complained about overcrowding and understaffing at FCI Ray Brook in the Adirondacks. Photo: US BOP
In a letter sent to congress earlier this month, Attorney General Eric Holder warned that mandatory budget cuts would force him to cut the number of work days for thousands of corrections officers — meaning a five percent reduction in the number of staff on duty in Federal prisons at any time.

Dave Maurer, with Congress's General Accounting Office, says those furloughs could force administrative staff, teachers and drug counselors at Federal prisons to work as front-line guards.

"That certainly makes things more difficult for everyone. Because if you're shutting down programs, that means that inmates have more idle time on their hands. And if you're putting people in position of securing inmates who don't typically do that on a day-to-day basis, it raises the possibility of increased violent incidents."

In his letter, Attorney General Holder warned Congress that sequester cuts could increase "the likelihood of inmate violence, misconduct and other risks" in Federal prisons.

According to Holder, some correctional facilities will be placed in full or partial lock-down to maintain security while staffing levels are cut.

That would mean inmates spending whole days in their cells with vocational training and drug treatment programs suspended.

Federal officials also say the sequester will delay the availability of roughly 8,000 prison beds at five new Federal prisons built to ease inmate crowding.

Support for the Prison Time Media Project is provided by the Prospect Hill Foundation, the David Rockefeller Fund, and the NY Council for the Humanities. Special assistance provided by the Adirondack Community Trust. Hear more from the series at prisontime.org. 

 

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