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Short Staffed Federal Prisons Endanger Near-By Communities

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The union that represents correctional officers at the U.S. Bureau of Prisons says federal prisons—including the famed Supermax facility—are not safe and major steps must be taken soon to protect prison employees and the communities near the prisons.

Testifying before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security yesterday, Bryan Lowery and Phil Glover told lawmakers that budget cuts and short staffing increasingly pose a danger to officers, inmates and the 115 communities and small towns which surround the facilities.

Lowery is president of AFGE’s Council of Prison Locals, and Glover is the council’s legislative coordinator.

Earlier this year, AFGE successfully fought for a $545 million increase in Bureau of Prisons funding. But the agency’s top management repeatedly has refused to follow the direction of Congress and is unilaterally saying that none of the funds provided for increased staffing will be used for that purpose.

Lowery testified:

The blatant disregard for the safety of our federal correctional officers by the Bureau of Prisons management is inexcusable. The safety of correctional officers, inmates and our communities is at risk.

The Council of Prison Locals is circulating an online petition urging U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to order Bureau of Prisons management to use the appropriated funds to hire more officers, fire Bush-era Bureau of Prisons Director Harley Lappin and hire 9,000 additional correctional officers. The council also has asked for a meeting with Holder to address the issues at the Bureau of Prisons.

Click here to sign the petition and send Holder the message.

Years of underfunding has created a serious understaffing situation in which correctional officers are outnumbered by inmates by 150-1 and correctional officers are unarmed inside the facilities. In a bureaucratic sleight of hand to cover over the shortstaffing, the Bureau of Prisons counts secretaries and administrative unit managers, among other nonguard correctional workers, in calculating its inmate-to-correctional staff ratio nationwide.

Some 206,000 inmates are confined in federal prisons today, up from 25,000 in 1980. By 2010, estimates project 215,000 inmates in these institutions.

The number of officers who staff federal prisons is failing to keep pace with the tremendous growth in the inmate population. Today, prison staffing is at an 86.6 percent level, compared with 95 percent staffing in the mid-1990s. The additional officers requested by the union would return staffing to 1997 levels.

The seriousness of the short staffing was underscored last month on the first anniversary of the murder of correctional officer Jose Rivera, who was stabbed to death in a federal prison in Atwater, Calif., while locking inmates into their cells. He was working alone because, the union says, that prison is severely understaffed.

In addition to fully funding and staffing the prisons, the union is seeking stab-resistant vests for correctional officers. Assaults on officers with homemade weapons have jumpred in recent years, said Lowery and Glover, who both are exposed to dangers in their jobs as correctional officers in federal lockups.


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