- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 22, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

OP-ED

It’s the most combustible blend imaginable. Take the federal prison system, dramatically increase the number of inmates, reduce the number of correctional officers, and what do you get? Overcrowding and violence that puts prison staff, the inmates themselves, and the surrounding communities in grave danger.

Sometimes, the results are lethal. Tragically, that was the cruel and preventable fate of Jose Rivera, who was just 22 when he was killed on June 20 by inmates with homemade weapons at the U.S. Penitentiary in Atwater, Calif.

Mr. Rivera’s death was a consequence of irresponsible federal policy-making and the inexorable laws of mathematics and human behavior. The higher the correctional officer-inmate ratio, the safer prisons will be, and the lower the ratio, the more likely it is that prisoners will attack one another or their guards.

The prison population is exploding, largely as a consequence of harsh mandatory sentences for drug violations enacted more than two decades ago. Before the new laws were passed, in 1980, there were 25,000 inmates in U.S. Bureau of Prison (BOP) facilities. Ten years later, the number of inmates more than doubled to 58,000. Another 10 years later, and it more than doubled again to 145,000. Today, the federal prison population has topped the 200,000 mark, and it is projected to reach 215,000 by 2010.

However, the number of corrections officers to guard them has not come close to keeping pace. In the mid-1990s, the BOP had 95 percent of positions filled. Today, the situation has deteriorated, with the BOP staffed at an 86.6 percent level and roughly 5,000 correctional officer positions unfilled.

The data confirm what common sense tells us - as overcrowding and understaffing have worsened, violence has grown. For example, a BOP report covering fiscal 2006 found that there were 1,362 armed and unarmed assaults by inmates on staff - a six percent increase over the previous year - and 1,780 inmate on inmate assaults, a 16 percent rise.

Consider also that BOP has some of the most violent inmates in our prison system, including gang members and terrorists such as Eric Rudolph, Theodore Kaczynski (“Unabomber”), and the alleged 20th hijacker Zacarias Moussaoui. Should the next president close Guantanamo Bay, the BOP will be the new home for many more terrorists.

Clearly, this is a homeland security issue that ought be addressed with the urgency it deserves by the White House and Congress.

First, Congress should enact and the president should sign a $500 million increase in BOP funding for fiscal 2009 to increase federal correctional officer staffing levels.

Second, federal policy makers should oppose any effort to eliminate the mandatory source preference of the Federal Prison Industries (FPI). This is a federal work program that keeps inmates occupied and productive throughout the day. Without the FPI - or a strong alternative work-based training program that would create a comparable number of inmate jobs - inmates would have much more unstructured time on their hands, a surefire recipe for more violence.

Third, Congress should pass H.R. 1890, legislation introduced by Rep. Tim Holden, Pennsylvania Democrat, that would prevent the use of federal funds for privately-run prisons. The record of prison privatization is not unlike the results of privatization in Iraq with the scandals of Blackwater and Halliburton. Numerous alleged abuses, escapes, riots and safety lapses have been documented at prisons run by the nation’s largest private prison companies. Moreover, a 1997 study reported 49 percent more inmate-on-staff assaults and 65 percent more inmate-on-inmate assaults in medium- and minimum-security private prisons than in comparable government prisons.

Jose Rivera should never have been killed. While we cannot turn back the clock, we can ensure that he did not die in vain. In his memory - and for the safety of our brave correctional officers and the people who live near BOP facilities - Congress and the next president must fix our ailing federal prison system.

John Gage is president of the American Federation of Government Employees. Bryan Lowry is president of the AFGE Council of Prison Locals.

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