Panel: Prison Overcrowding Jeopardizes Guard and Inmate Safety

By Matthew Harwood

Overcrowding at federal prisons is seriously jeopardizing the safety and security of guards and inmates alike, witnesses told lawmakers today.

"Correctional administrators agree that crowded prisons result in greater tension, frustration, and anger among the inmate population, which leads to conflicts and violence," said Harry G. Lappin, director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), before a subcommittee of the House Committee on the Judiciary.

Since the 1980s, the prison population has exploded within federal prisons. From 1980 to 1989, the inmate population doubled from 24,000 to 58,000, mainly due to mandatory minimum sentencing statutes. During the 1990s, the population more than doubled, ballooning to 134,000. As of July 2, 2009, the FOB detains 170,700 prisoners, while another 36,000 prisoners are held under contract with private prisons.

"Systemwide," noted Lappin, "the BOP was operating at 37 percent over its total rated capacity."

Despite this dramatic increase in the prisoner population, the number of guards necessary to keep these institutions safe has not kept pace.

"The BOP system is currently staffed at an 87 percent level, as contrasted with the 95 percent staffing levels in the mid-1990s," testified Phil Glover, legislative coordinator for the American Federation of Government Employees' Council on Prison Locals. "This 87 percent staffing level is below the 90 percent staffing level that BOP believes to be the minimum staffing level for maintaining the safety and security of BOP prisons."

Currently, the inmate-to-staff ratio in BOP facilities is 4.9 inmates to 1 staff member, whereas in 1997 the ratio was 3.7 to 1, Glover added.

Such overcrowding overwhelms prison guards and leads to increased rates of serious violence among the inmates, Lappin testified, citing an internal BOP study from 2005.

We found that both the inmate-to-staff ratio and the rate of crowding at an institution (the number of inmates relative to the institution’s rated capacity) are important factors that affect the rate of serious inmate assaults.

Our analysis revealed that a one percentage point increase in a facility’s inmate population over its rated capacity corresponds with an increase in the prison’s annual serious assault rate by 4.09 per 5,000 inmates; and an increase of one inmate in an institution’s inmate-to-custody-staff ratio increases the prison’s annual serious assault rate by approximately 4.5 per 5,000 inmates. The results demonstrate through sound empirical research that there is a direct, statistically significant relationship between resources (bed space and staffing) and institution safety.

The violence has also increasingly touched guards too, said Glover.

In just over the past year, one guard in California was murdered by two inmates while another guard in Indiana was "brutally stabbed," he said. Glover also noted a 2006 report from the BOP that reported inmate-on-staff assaults increased 6 percent over the prior fiscal year.

To increase the safety and security of federal prisons, Glover and Lappin urged Congress to direct BOP to hire more staff. Lappin also recommended other solutions, such as expanding inmate housing at existing facilities; funneling nonviolent criminal aliens, which make up 10 percent of the prison population, to private prisons; and reducing the prison population or the amount of time a prisoner serves.

The likelihood that the BOP will hire more staff, however, seems remote, says Glover.

The BOP has decided that none of the money allocated in FY 2009 and that will eventually be allocated in FY 2010 will go to hiring more correctional officers, rather it will be spent to "rebuild various BOP operational activities (inmate care programs and prison facility maintenance and security functions) that were allowed to erode due to years of inadequate salaries and expenses account funding," Glover told lawmakers.

♦ Photo by abardwell/Flickr


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