Sequestration: Dangerous for Corrections

Simply put, the BOP needs to be exempt from sequestration -- the lives of staff, inmates, and the general public will be at risk

The across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration are set to take effect on March 1.  The sequestration threatens hundreds of thousands of middle class jobs as well as vital services for children, seniors, people with mental illness, and our men and women in uniform, but little is discussed about the impact on our correctional system – until now.

Sequestration is a series of automatic cuts to government agencies totaling $1.2 trillion over 10 years. The cuts would be split 50-50 between defense and domestic discretionary spending.  It attempts to get a handle on the growth of the U.S. national debt, which exploded upward when the 2007 recession hit and now stands at more than $16 trillion.

President Obama sought to recruit the nation's governors on February 25th in his sequestration battle with Congress, telling them that $85 billion in automatic budget cuts will cripple economic progress in their states.  Set to start Friday, the sequestration cuts will significantly impact many areas – to include staffing levels at our nation’s prisons.

• Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) estimates that it would lose the equivalent of more than 1,300 correctional officers. 

• 36,700 BOP workers face furlough for an average of 12 days (employees already received notice).

Mass Budget Cuts

In a letter from Attorney General Eric Holder on the impact of the pending government sequester, Holder goes into details about how the Department of Justice is working on meeting the mass budget cuts.  The letter addressed to Senator Barbara Mulkuski (Chairwoman of Committee on Appropriations) gets to the substance of the cuts for the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP).  An excerpt from the 3rd page states:

“The sequestration cut $338 million from BOP’s current budget. BOP would face a furlough of nearly 36,700 onboard staff for an average of 12 days, plus curtailment of future hiring, if sequestration occurs. This equates to about a 5 percent reduction in onboard staff levels and would endanger the safety of staff and over 218,000 inmates. As a consequence, BOP would need to implement full or partial lockdowns and significantly reduce inmate reentry and training programs. This would leave inmates idle, increasing the likelihood of inmate misconduct, violence, and other risks to correctional workers and inmates.

Limiting or eliminating inmate programs such as drug treatment and vocational education would, in fact, lead to higher costs to taxpayers and communities in the long run as the lack of such inmate re-entry training makes it less likely that released inmates will be successful at reintegration into society upon their release.

Further, BOP would slow the ongoing activations of new prisons that have completed construction during the last few years (FCI Berlin, NH, and FCI Aliceville, AL). BOP would not begin the FY 2013 planned activations of FCI Hazelton, WV, or USP Yazoo City, MS. BOP would still incur costs to secure and maintain these prisons, along with the prison in Thomson, IL. These five prisons represent over 8,100 beds that BOP would not be able to utilize fully at a time when our prisons are filled over rated capacity. In addition, the communities surrounding the prisons would not benefit from the significant economic activity that a prison engenders. We estimate that sequestration mean over 3,800 fewer jobs related to the prison activations that would be foregone (including an estimated 1,500 private sector jobs).

I am acutely concerned about staff and inmate safety should cuts of the sequestration’s magnitude hit BOP. To be blunt, sequestration means less money, not fewer inmates.  We would still have the same number of inmates – over 218,000 – after sequestration as before. This kind of dangerous situation is exactly why sequestration needs to be avoided and sensible, balanced deficit reductions achieved. While I plan to take every available step within my authority to aid BOP should sequestration happen, these steps cannot mitigate the severity of every cut faced by BOP.”

Compounding Risk

During my career as warden, staff understood risk was part of the job. They trained and prepared for emergencies. Staff were asked to “do more with less” on a regular basis and took part in cost-saving initiatives. They measured key indicators to keep the prison safe for fellow staff members and the inmate population. 

To intentionally endanger staff, inmates, and the community through political indecision is unconscionable.  To compound inherent risks of a prison environment by reducing staff, limiting inmate programing, and other stark budget-reductions is a crime.     

I commend federal prison employees for working during the pending sequestration. Each and every day they maintain high standards and professionalism. Simply put, the BOP needs to be exempt from sequestration -- the lives of staff, inmates, and the general public will be at risk.


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