How will Federal inmates fare under sequester?
A GAO report released last September found significant overcrowding throughout the Federal prison system. (Source: GAO)
With more than 210,000 men and women now in the Federal prison system, the system of correctional facilities operated by the Bureau of Prisons is now big enough to equal about three US congressional districts.
Put another way, the Federal inmate population is roughly half that of Wyoming and they all live entirely within a world shaped by Federal government workers.
What that means is that the sequester could have profound implications for their safety, their education and rehabilitation programs, and their quality of life.
Prison Time Media Project explored this question this week for NPR’s All Things Considered.
DOJ officials tell me that furloughs of Federal prison workers won’t begin until late April at the earliest, but if those budget cuts do occur — and if they last for months or years — it would mean long-running cutbacks in some of BOP’s core programs.
“BOP would have to implement full or partial lockdowns and significantly reduce inmate reentry and training programs,” argued Attorney General Eric Holder, in a letter sent to Congress in early February.
“This would leave inmates idle, increasing the likelihood of inmate misconduct, violence and other risks to correctional workers and inmates.”
Again, we’re not talking about a change that would affect a few hundred or a few thousand individuals. This is a dense, closely integrated “community” about the size of Reno, Nevada.
“I am acutely concerned about staff and inmate safety,” Holder concluded, describing the sequestration as “dangerous.”
The risk is exacerbated by the fact that staffing levels in the overcrowded Federal system are already well below levels that experts say are appropriate.
That means there’s very little margin. The sequester will almost certainly mean teachers and administrative staff in Federal prisons being reassigned to work as front-line prison guards.
“That certainly makes things more difficult for everyone,” says David Maurer, a researcher for Congress’s General Accounting Office who studied overcrowding in Federal prisons.
“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.”
Again, staff cutbacks won’t begin until April 21st. But of all the areas where sequester could have serious consequences, the world inside America’s Federal prisons may be at the top of the list.