Friday, March 7, 2008

Staggering figures from the recently-released Pew Center on the States’ Public Safety Performance Project show one in every 99.1 adults in the United States is incarcerated, amounting to more than 2.3 million people behind bars. Higher incarceration rates are not likely because of an increase in crime or a general rise population. Rather, the report concludes, there are more prisoners because of tougher enforcement efforts and longer sentences. Are federal and state budgets in sync with the rising incarceration rates?

Many agencies have been unable to hire enough guards and prison staff to meet demand. The evidence rests in the fact that over the last 20 years, there are proportionally fewer prison guards and personnel monitoring the burgeoning population of lawbreakers. Policy-makers should understand that more prisoners means more guards are needed.

Data from the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) show that in 1988, the staff-to-inmate ratio was one staff member for every 3.68 inmates. That figure includes both prison guards as well as administrative personnel. In 1997, the staff-to-inmate figure fell to one per 3.57 inmates, but by 2002, that ratio was one staff member for every 4.32 prisoners. The ratio today is slightly higher, one staffer per 4.91 inmates. On the state level, the guard-to-prisoner ratio is also somber: There is one guard for every 6.7 prisoners, according to the American Correctional Association. No wonder we often hear of prisoners overpowering guards and escaping.

There also is the issue of job incentives. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show the average prison guard in 2006 had an annual salary of just $35,760, more than 34 percent below the median 2006 national salary of $48,023 calculated by the Census Bureau.

One small consolation is that data from the BOP show the proportion of money taken from the bureau’s budget and spent on salary for prison staff has increased in recent years. President Bush’s budget proposal for fiscal 2009 released last month includes a slight increase in funding for the federal prison system, after a slight decrease from 2007 to 2008. Congress would do well to implement this increase, and the BOP would do well to see that our prison guards receive the compensation they deserve. This may help attract and retain more qualified guards, and maintain a higher safety standard for prison guards, who put their lives on the line every day.

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