The peril was driven home shortly after 11 a.m. on August 18 when four employees, only one of whom was a correctional officer, were assaulted at the Canaan federal penitentiary in Waymart, Pa. That’s the same prison, home for 1,500 male convicts, where Eric Williams, a correctional officer, was slain by an inmate in 2013.
Last month, a food service foreman was attacked by a prisoner “aiming for his throat and neck” with a shank, a makeshift knife, according to the prison employees’ union. Other workers also were struck by the weapon when they went to the foreman’s aid. Fortunately, the injuries were not life-threatening, but the incident was another example of the dangers federal employees face.
Prison employees expect to deal with prisoners. Yet BOP policy places non-correctional staffers in risky, up-close-and-personal contact with inmates — including searching them.
The reason: too many prisoners and too few correctional officers.
The federal inmate-to-staff ratio, now 4.4-to-1, runs significantly higher than the ratios in the five states with the largest state prison populations, BOP Director Charles E. Samuels, Jr. told Congress last month.
“These high ratios negatively impact our ability to effectively supervise prisoners and provide inmate programs,” he said. “The Bureau has long espoused a philosophy that every institution staff member, irrespective of his or her specific position and duties, is a ‘Correctional Worker’ first. This means that every institution staff member, irrespective of their professional duties, is expected to assist with security. Institution staff are visible on the compound, assist with inmate cell and pat searches, and respond to emergencies. This strategy is good correctional management, but it has become critical in the face of rising inmate to staff ratios. When insufficient Correctional Officers are available to cover an institution’s security posts on any given day, we must use non-custody institution staff to make up the difference.”
Regular prison workers wear protective vests and are trained in correctional techniques, self-defense and pepper spray. Yet an American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) leader said the general staff does not have the experience and the important on-the-job training of correctional officers. This policy of augmenting correctional officers with other prison staffers is a risky one.
“We don’t have the proper inmate-to-staff ratio to keep the prisons safe, the inmates safe,” said Eric (E.O.) Young, president of AFGE Council of Prison Locals C-33. The inmate-to-staff ratio should be 3-to-1, the way it was 25 years ago “when we had plenty of funding prior to the two wars,” he added. Since then “we have run prisons on the cheap.”
On Thursday, Sen. Robert P. Casey (D-Pa.) sent Samuels a letter asking about the use of non-correctional officers at Canaan and if those who responded to the assault had “sufficient training to handle a violent situation without putting themselves in undue danger.”
Although BOP funding and the inmate-to-staff ratio are improving, along with a recent decline in the inmate population, federal prison facilities remain dangerously overcrowded. Federal high-security prisons, like Canaan, are 51 percent overcrowded. The situation at medium-security institutions (35 percent overcrowded) and low-security facilities (25 percent) is better, but still bad.
Overcrowding “strains facilities’ infrastructure like water, sewage, and power systems, sometimes to the breaking point,” Samuels said. “Inmate frustration and anger, in turn, are catalysts for violence which poses real risks to the lives of staff and offenders.”
Risks are found throughout the federal workplace and to a greater degree than official records indicate. Last week, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) said four federal employees have died in the line of duty “so far” during fiscal year 2015, which expires October 1. But that information actually reflects deaths just through the end of February. It did not include, for example, the seven federal employees and two federal contractors who died this calendar year fighting fires.
OPM should require agencies to promptly report line-of-duty employee and contractor deaths, then make that data available on an up-to-date basis.
But however timely the statistics, they can’t begin to reflect the pain of those who lost loved ones.
Since the death of his son Eric, Don Williams and his wife have been dealing with that pain by working to improve the safety of correctional workers.
“I can’t bring my son back,” Williams said in an interview. But “part of the justice for my son” is addressing the overcrowding and under-staffing in federal prisons.
Said Williams: “I don’t want any family to get a knock on the door like we got to say your son has been murdered.”