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Understaffed, Unsafe, Unacceptable

The number of federal and state prisoners nationwide hit 1.5 million in 2004, a 51 percent increase from a decade ago. But the number of COs increased by only 8 percent during the same period.

In a recent news report, “Bulging Jails and Tight Budgets Make Job of Guard Even Tougher,” The Wall Street Journal cited these figures, confirming what ACU has been saying all along: The shortage of COs in America’s correctional facilities is very widespread. While the prison population in the United States is growing rapidly, the number of corrections officers is not.

This simply means that the job of a CO — which is dangerous even with full staffing — is growing ever more hazardous. It’s not unusual, for instance, for as few as 17 officers to be responsible for 1,000 inmates.

The Journal notes state and federal budgets have not kept pace with the increase in inmates. Because salaries are low, the rate of turnover is high — creating a perilous situation for the men and women who work in maximum-and even minimum-security facilities across the country. According to the American Corrections Association, understaffing was a major reason for the 7,795 inmate assaults on prison officers in 2005 — 13 percent more than in 2003.

Shortages in the number of COs had a lot to do with a Delaware incident, in July of last year, in which a correctional counselor was held hostage and then raped by an inmate. The state’s top corrections administrator acknowledged that an insufficient number of COs is a serious problem. And it’s getting worse, AFSCME Council 81 has pointed out, with the number of vacancies growing and good officers leaving for other employment. Following the incident, COs at the facility protested by refusing to voluntarily work overtime.

In Portage, Wisconsin’s Columbia Correctional Institution, prison overcrowding and low staffing have led state Sen. Scott Fitzgerald (R) to call the state’s prison system a “ticking time bomb.” AFSCME Local 3394 (Council 24) Pres. Jon Patzlsberger pointed out to Fitzgerald and other legislators that the 600-capacity prison now holds 835 inmates. “I think that’s pretty much the case statewide,” Patzlsberger said of prison overcrowding. “Everybody’s bulging at the seams. We’re pressing the governor for more funding.”

‘DANGEROUS TERRITORY.’ That describes Illinois prisons in an era of decreasing staffing levels. Two dozen corrections officers, members of Local 632 (Council 31) recently told the public about it with an informational picket at the Decatur Correctional Center, a mediumsecurity facility for women. There have been other pickets since then: one at the Robinson Corrections Center (following a vicious assault on a corrections food supervisor) and another at a corrections facility in Jacksonville.

The council has been conducting a statewide campaign to promote safety in prisons and other state agencies. Illinois prisons are already overcrowded at 135 percent of inmate capacity and drastic reductions have seriously compounded these problems. In the past four years, more than 1,800 corrections employees have been terminated despite the fact that the prison population has remained stable at about 44,000.

Said longtime Decatur CO Ken Burton after the picket: “We want our community to know that underfunding our prisons poses serious dangers to public safety. And we want people in the community to tell our state legislators that this is a really bad situation.” According to Burton, who is president of Local 632, the Decatur facility has about 163 officers to handle an inmate population of 550.

Early this year, more than 200 Council 31 members, from correctional facilities across the state, packed a hearing room and urged legislators to pass a bill that would add more frontline staff throughout Illinois. A Council 31 study, titled “Maximum Insecurity: Illinois Prisons in Crisis,” detailed both overcrowding and personnel cuts with COs required to work an excessive amount of overtime. (For more information, log on to asp?objectID=984.) The study noted that the state ranks below the national midpoint in corrections staffing levels and last among Midwestern states in staff-to-inmate ratio. Fights among inmates are increasing, and more prison workers are injured when they intervene to break up such altercations.

FEWER COs, MORE ATTACKS. Recalling the murder last March of an inmate at a southern Illinois prison, ACU members are incensed about CO shortages. A lone officer was responsible for about 30 inmates when the attack occurred. The CO was lucky to escape unharmed.

But CO Lt. Aubrey Fletcher wasn’t as fortunate. He suffered serious head injuries during an inmate’s attack in 2004. In a legislative hearing last year on unsafe conditions in Maryland prisons, one of the chronic causes — understaffing — again proved prominent. A witness testified that, at the state’s Eastern Correctional Institution, the number of lieutenants had dropped to 27 from 46 in 2003.

A department spokesman told The Baltimore Sun that staffing levels are “appropriate.” But Fletcher knows otherwise. “The people in headquarters don’t care,” he says, “because they don’t have to walk the tiers.” His union, Local 3478 (Council 92), has been trying to increase pressure on Gov. Robert Ehrlich (R), who has the exclusive authority to hike the corrections budget, to boost funding for safety improvements. “We’ve been battling the administration in hearings,” says Ronnie Bailey, the council’s executive director, “but the governor refused to meet with us.”

In the wake of the recent death of a Maryland CO, Council 92 declared a “Corrections State of Emergency” at a press conference on February 6. Bailey urged the governor “to act now to secure our prisons.”

The Maryland Division of Correction reported to News From ACU that the number of COs of all ranks dropped from 5,422 in 2002 to 5,006 this year. (About 4,000 of them are represented by Council 92.) Meanwhile, the state’s inmate population increased — from 23,302 in 2001 to an estimated 24,590 this year.

TRAGIC TALES. Logic suggests a strong correlation between the decline in corrections workers, the increase in the inmate population and the frequency of assaults, and the statistics tell their own tragic tale. ACU National Steering Committee Chair Glenard S. Middleton is leading an effort — in concert with Council 92 — to increase public pressure for improved safety at state and local facilities. “Our plan will lead up to November” when Ehrlich is up for re-election, says Middleton. He knows first-hand what trouble the CO shortage can cause: He worked for 17 years as a CO, attaining the rank of sergeant at the Baltimore City Jail.

Mandatory overtime has become the dangerous counterpart to understaffing, says George Gisin, staff rep for Maryland county correctional Locals 3080 and 3496: “If you don’t get time off to relax, you burn out.”

ACU has been holding informational pickets at various corrections facilities to call public attention to these problems. COs have also participated in lobby days earlier this year, notably in Illinois, Virginia, and Wisconsin. During National Corrections Officers and Employees Week in May, dozens of COs visited congressional offices on Capitol Hill to enlist support for a bill that would provide collective bargaining rights for corrections officers in states where these rights don’t exist.

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