U.S. Penitentiary Canaan in Waymart, Pa. (Courtesy of the Bureau of Prisons)
Columnist

On Sunday, it will be five years to the day that Eric Williams, a Bureau of Prisons senior officer, was slain on duty.

His father, Don Williams, recalls a knock on the door of the same house where Eric grew up. It was about 1:30 a.m., and the warden of the Canaan high-security federal prison in Waymart, Pa., along with a human relations staffer and a union official, were there. The warden did the talking.

“Sir,” the warden said, “I regret to tell you Eric passed away at work tonight.”

Like any parent, Williams can’t get over his child’s death. But he is trying to do something about the conditions that he believes led to Eric’s killing, at age 34, on Feb. 25, 2013.


Eric Williams, a 34-year-old correctional officer, died at the Canaan federal prison in Waymart, Pa., on Feb. 25, 2013, after being attacked by an inmate. (U.S. Bureau of Prisons)

“I think that the Number 1 contributor to my son’s death was the lack of staffing, the fact that he was alone in that housing unit,” Don Williams said by telephone. Williams formed the Voices of JOE, which takes its name from the first names of Jose Rivera, Osvaldo Albarati and Eric Williams — correctional officers who were killed on duty.

Williams also works closely with the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) in the union’s effort to have the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) hire more correctional officers.

“Every day federal correctional workers get up, kiss their families goodbye and leave not knowing if they’ll ever see them again,” said Eric Young, president of AFGE Council of Prison Locals. “Yet here we are today facing an onslaught. Right now, the BOP has proposed to eliminate over 6,000 unfilled positions.”

The Trump administration’s budget request for fiscal 2018 included a decrease of 6,132 BOP slots. The 2019 budget request calls for a decrease of 1,168.

“This isn’t right. This isn’t safe. And this isn’t good policy,” Young said. “It’s irresponsible to ‘right size’ officer safety. Prisons can’t be run on the cheap, and they can’t be run properly without adequate staffing.”

The BOP argues that the cut in slots will have no ill effects.

With the unconvincing argument that the positions “have been unfunded for some time,” an agency statement said that “the BOP does not expect this to impact institutional operations or its overall ability to maintain a safe environment for inmates and staff. Likewise, we believe that reducing authorized positions will not have a negative impact on public safety.”

BOP Director Mark S. Inch had high praise for the officers, telling a congressional hearing in December that they leap “into situations from which others run away. Their first thought when breaking up inmate fights is the safety of others, not themselves. When a body alarm sounds, they rush to the side of their colleague. They perform CPR for inmates in distress, hoping to make the critical difference that saves a life.”

But despite the risks of injury and death officers face, more of them is not the answer, in the administration’s view.

“Over the past few years, the inmate population has decreased significantly, such that today our crowding and staffing levels are much more manageable,” Inch said.

But manageable, in inmate crowding or officer understaffing, is not the same as right.

The inmate-to-correctional officer ratio has improved from when it was 10 to 1 in 2013. But it’s still much too high, according to the Republican-controlled Senate Appropriations Committee.

“The inmate to correctional officer ratio is currently 8.3 to 1,” a July committee report said, “a level that is unsafe for staff and should immediately be corrected.”

That level also is a long way from what the union prefers, particularly because, as Inch told Congress, “the Bureau houses significant numbers of very dangerous and disruptive inmates who engage in disruptive and dangerous misconduct, including assaultive behavior toward staff and other inmates.”

If there are too few officers to handle “dangerous misconduct,” prison officials send in administrative staff, teachers, cooks — any employee available. It’s a controversial policy known as “augmentation.”

When four Canaan employees were assaulted during an August 2015 disturbance, only one was a correctional officer.

The Appropriations Committee directed “BOP to curtail its overreliance on augmentation and instead hire additional full-time correctional staff before continuing to augment existing staff.”

But the BOP is not inclined to follow that congressional directive.

“We understand concerns regarding augmenting staff, particularly as it impacts our ability to provide programs and services to our inmate population,” the BOP statement said. “However, it is important to note that staff assigned to our institutions are professional law enforcement officers first, regardless of their occupation. All staff are trained accordingly and are expected to perform law enforcement functions during routine and non-routine situations.”

That doesn’t convince Don Williams, who said his son was stabbed at least 129 times and his skull so broken that “I didn’t even recognize him in his casket.”

For AFGE National President J. David Cox Sr., Trump’s BOP budget is inconsistent with the president’s promises.

“President Trump came into office preaching about the need for a safer America, but instead he is putting the lives of federal law enforcement officers and our communities at risk. The men and women who risk their lives guarding our prisons deserve proper staffing levels to ensure they can do their job and make it home safe,” Cox said. The proposed budget is “bad for prison staff, and it’s bad for inmates,” he said.

Read more:

[DOJ watchdog report criticizes solitary confinement for the mentally ill in federal prisons]

[Too many inmates, too few correctional officers: A lethal recipe in federal prisons]

[Who’s watching the prison guards?]