The Cautionary Instruction: Sequestration’s impact on public safety

Friday, 29 March 2013 06:00 AM Written by  Matt Mangino

20101020 budgetcut 150The U.S Bureau of Prisons has about 38,000 employees who supervise 176,000 inmates at 117 institutions nationwide. A report last fall by the Government Accountability Office (GOA) found that the growth in federal inmate population has negatively affected inmates, staff and infrastructure.

Now, the federal sequestration law threatens to put inmates and staff at even greater risk.

From 1997 to 2011, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) reported that the ratio of inmates to BOP staff increased from 3.57 inmates per staff member to 4.94. This includes all staff not just correctional officers. During that same time period the inmate ratio to correction officers varied between 10:1 in maximum security prisons to 14:1 in medium security facilities.

According to the GOA, nearly all BOP facilities had fewer correctional staff than needed, with a BOP-wide staffing shortage in excess of 3,200. The total BOP staff compliment includes correctional officers as well as administrative, program and support personnel responsible for all of the BOP’s activities and treatment nationwide.

The BOP philosophy is that all employees are correctional workers. All employees are trained in the basic responsibilities of a corrections officer. When circumstances dictate, a facility superintendent can implement what is known as augmentation—requiring administrative staff to do correctional work.

Then there is the issue of inadequate facilities. “As of January 2011, 94 percent of high security inmates were double bunked, and 16 percent of medium security inmates and almost 82 percent of low security inmates were triple bunked or housed in space not originally designed for inmate housing.”

Overcrowding can create dangerous conditions for inmates and prison staff.

Cramped quarters and a lack of privacy can lead to a heightened level of tension in correction facilities. In turn, as tension grows the incidence of violence against staff and fellow inmates increase. With minimum staffing and growing supervision responsibilities, corrections officers and inmates are more vulnerable.

Last week, Attorney General Eric Holder averted daily furloughs of 3,570 BOP staffers around the country, moving $150 million from other Department of Justice (DOJ) accounts to stave off what would have been an overall reduction of about 12 percent of the BOP workforce.

The sequester resulted in $1.6 billion in budget cuts for the DOJ.

Holder’s decision to juggle funding within the DOJ to avert disaster is within his authority according to the Office of Management and Budget, but "these flexibilities are limited and do not provide significant relief due to the rigid nature of the way in which sequestration is required by law to be implemented."

Holder acknowledged that the transfer may create a crisis in other law enforcement areas funded by the DOJ. "I am deeply troubled by the impact the sequester will have on the department's capacity to prevent terrorism, combat violent crime, partner with states and local law enforcement agencies and protect the judiciary and our most vulnerable citizens," Holder said.

Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George, P.C. He is the former district attorney of Lawrence County and just completed a six year term on the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole. His weekly column on crime and punishment is syndicated by GateHouse New Service. You can read his musings on the criminal justice system at and follow Matt on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.

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