With proposed cuts, fears of greater prison dangers
Published: August 18, 2013
A federal prison system already "cut to the bone" the night an inmate ambushed and killed correctional officer Eric Williams in February will leave guards more susceptible to injury or death if Congress enacts more than $110 million in proposed budget cuts, critics of the plan told The Citizens' Voice.
The cuts, recommended by the House subcommittee that oversees funding for the federal Bureau of Prisons, would slash the agency's budget to $6.7 billion - $110.6 million below the level approved for the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, and $266.3 million below the full funding request approved by a Senate subcommittee.
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey Jr., D-Pa., cited the attack on Williams, a Nanticoke native who was working alone in a unit housing more than 100 inmates, in a letter this weekend slamming the House proposal.
Williams' death "serves as a stark reminder of the risks correctional officers and staff face every day on behalf of the American people," Casey wrote in the letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
"Ensuring that the Bureau of Prisons has the necessary funding to provide for the safety of both inmates and staff will help prevent tragedies like this in the future, and honor Officer Eric Williams' memory," Casey continued in the letter, which his office provided to The Citizens' Voice.
Congress will debate the dueling plans in the fall. If the House and Senate do not approve the same funding level for the Bureau of Prisons, a conference committee of representatives from both chambers could decide on the lower amount, the higher amount, or somewhere in the middle.
The House proposal would slash the Bureau of Prisons' budget for salaries and expenses to $6.58 billion - $112.2 million below the fiscal year 2013 level. That amount, according to a formula used by Phil Glover, of the Council of Prison Locals, could fund the salaries and benefits for at least 1,160 correctional officers.
A spokeswoman for Rep. Frank Wolf, the Virginia Republican who chairs the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies, did not reply to an email Friday seeking a response to Casey's letter.
The subcommittee, in a statement accompanying its funding recommendation, said its proposal would "maintain staffing levels to ensure safe and adequate facilities to house the nation's criminal population, and will continue the opening of newly constructed prisons," including the startup of a state penitentiary converted into a federal super maximum security facility in Thomson, Ill.
The House proposal, however, did not factor in the effect of furloughs mandated by a second wave of sequestration scheduled to take effect in January, Casey said.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder transferred $150 million of Justice Department funds to the Bureau of Prisons in March to avoid furloughs through the end of the current fiscal year.
Holder's decision, which came just three weeks after Williams' death at the high-security Canaan facility in Wayne County, halted cuts that would have shrunk Bureau of Prisons funding by 5 percent, or $339 million, sparing 3,570 employees each day from furlough. At Canaan, union officials said, the workforce would have been reduced by the equivalent of 30 workers each day.
Under the furlough plan, correctional officers would have been forced to take 14 unpaid days off between April 21 - the day the bureau's cuts were to take effect - and the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. That would have meant an unpaid day off about every two weeks.
Those cuts could still take effect in fiscal year 2014, Dale Deshotel, the president of the Council of Prison Locals, said.
Deshotel, whose organization is planning a letter-writing campaign and a legislative conference in the fall to coincide with the funding debate, said the House plan will only endanger correctional officers and inmates further.
"Congress has to hear our cry," Deshotel said Friday in a telephone interview from his home in Louisiana.
"If we do our job then at least they can't say we didn't tell them," Deshotel said. "And if something else happens, it's going to be on those congressmen or those senators."
Two correctional officers per housing unit had been standard in the Bureau of Prisons until 2005, when the agency eliminated 2,300 positions and mandated a "mission critical" ratio of one guard per cell block.
Williams was alone, equipped only with handcuffs and a radio with a panic button, when an inmate identified by prosecutors as Jessie Con-ui blindsided and repeatedly stabbed him during lockdown with a crude, handmade knife.
Con-ui, convicted of a 2002 murder in Arizona and a member of the notoriously ruthless prison gang the New Mexican Mafia, is awaiting trial. If convicted, he could face the death penalty.
"We're cut to the bone so much now, we're working with such skeleton crews now since 2005, with this mission critical staffing, it's hard to find places to cut," Deshotel said.
Casey attended Williams' wake and pushed for the expansion of a program to arm guards with pepper spray weeks after his death. In an interview Friday he called the House proposal an "outrage" in the wake of Williams' death and said overcrowding - the inmate population has grown from 58,000 in 1990 to more than 200,000 in 2013 - was tilting the balance of power in federal prisons away from officers.
"You can't call yourself tough on crime and then do this," Casey said. "You're giving violent inmates a huge advantage to make it more stressful for the guards and possibly lead to more injuries for the guards and maybe even more deaths."
Since Williams' death, Deshotel's union has chronicled dozens of incidents at federal prisons across the country, including a June 23 assault at an institution in Florida where an inmate charged an officer from behind, knocked him to the ground and started kicking him in the head. The officer sustained a broken rib, lost teeth and a broken jaw, according to the union's report.
The attacks will only grow more severe if funding is cut and staffing levels remain flat, Deshotel said.
"The price of Eric Williams' life," he said. "Imagine. Imagine."
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