Budget Cuts Could Compromise Safety At Overcrowded Prisons

Corrections officers in the federal prison system are bracing for possible staffing cuts and furloughs triggered by the sequester. The cuts come at a time when studies show that inmate crowding and staff shortages in federal prisons are already posing challenges for guards trying to maintain order behind bars.

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Federal workers are bracing for the across-the-board cuts that begin phasing in tomorrow. And tensions are particularly high in the federal prison system. Two congressional reports released in the last year found that inmate overcrowding has made it difficult for guards to maintain safety in prisons. Now, Attorney General Eric Holder says furloughing more corrections officers could make safety problems even worse. More on that from Brian Mann of North Country Public Radio.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: 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' General Accounting Office questioned 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.

DAVID MAURER: When you pack more inmates into a fixed capacity, it increases the possibility of violent episodes. It places strains on the staff's ability to deliver services and operate in a safe environment.

MANN: Maurer'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.

DALE DESHOTEL: 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.

MANN: 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 that 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 21st.

That will give prison wardens time to work out how staff cutbacks would be implemented. 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 5 percent reduction in the number of staff on duty in federal prisons at any time. Dave Maurer, with Congress' General Accounting Office, says those furloughs could force administrative staff, teachers and drug counselors at federal prisons to work as frontline guards.

MAURER: 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.

MANN: In his letter, Attorney General Holder warned Congress that sequester cuts could increase, quote, "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 lockdown 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.

For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann.

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