The assault on New York federal prison guard Louis Pepe was an extraordinary one, but it gives a sense of the dangers facing federal corrections officers. On Nov. 1, 2000, Mr. Pepe suffered severe brain damage after the man reputed to be Osama bin Laden’s best friend, al Qaeda operative Mahmdouh Mahmud Salim, stabbed him in the eye with a knife he fashioned from a plastic comb. After Salim was convicted of assaulting Mr. Pepe, he was sent to the federal “supermax” prison in Florence, Col., where the government keeps its most dangerous inmates. But for Mr. Pepe, the damage was already done.
Less dramatic attacks occur all the time against Bureau of Prisons officers, most of whom are unarmed and circulate in open areas among prisoners. The question currently in dispute between the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the American Federation of Government Employees, the union that represents its officers, is whether the frequency is increasing. The union claims that staffing shortfalls are leaving officers vulnerable to dangerous inmates. The Bureau of Prisons says its numbers don’t support that.
And indeed no definitive evidence has emerged that assaults are spiking. But that’s not to say the risk isn’t there. The typical inmate today is more likely to be a violent offender with a long sentence and little to lose by attacking his guards than the typical inmate of a decade or two ago. Add to that a burgeoning prison-crowding problem and a worsening inmate-to-officer ratio. The big picture is a tougher inmate population and fewer officers to control it.
The AFGE makes its case with preliminary Bureau of Prisons assault data for 2004-5, which appear to suggest a recent uptick in incidents. In the one-year period ending in February, there were 176 reports of prisoners assaulting officers with weapons in federal prisons, according to a bureau correctional services significant incidents report. (The bureau defines a weapon as anything from a gun smuggled inside a facility to a knife fashioned from wire or plastic like Salim’s or a toxic substance.) Those numbers are significantly higher than the figures for the same 1999-2000 period: 107 incidents.
Rising absolute numbers are a given in a system where the inmate population increased by 24 percent over those five years. But the reported assaults in the data the AFGE points to rose by 64 percent with weapons, and those without weapons are up 37 percent.
The apparent rise in assaults might not be anything statistically significant. Presented with the union’s charges, the Bureau of Prisons produced a chart covering post-adjudication cases from 1999-2003 that shows a per-inmate assault ratio that actually declined, albeit very slightly, over the period 1999 to 2003. For every 5,000 inmates, one officer was assaulted with a weapon in 1999, by the bureau’s reckoning. Slightly fewer officers were assaulted in 2000, but slightly more in 2001 and 2002, and fewer in 2003.
If assaults have remained mostly static, that could only be in spite of conditions. Ten years ago, with a prisoner population of 90,159, there was one staffer for every 2.6 prisoners. In 2003, with a population of 146,212, there was one for every 4. 3 prisoners. So the number of prisoners each officer must watch has increased significantly over the last 10 years.
The prison population itself has gotten more violent, at least to judge by the type of convictions they have. For instance, the proportion of inmates in medium- or high-security federal prison on arms, explosives or arson charges is up about 50 percent since 1995.
The overcrowding problem seems destined to worsen. Considerable increases in homeland-security spending and a budget boost for the FBI are likely to result in more arrests and convictions for federal crime. This year, the Bush administration moved to cut money for federal prison construction in its fiscal 2006 budget request, declaring a moratorium until studies determine the best ways to meet the capacity challenges.
Congress should keep a close eye on the situation. We owe it to law-abiding citizens to get criminals off the streets, and we owe it to the prison guards to give them the tools to safely manage their prisoners.