Donald Trump’s 2019 budget proposal projected that the federal prison system will receive nearly 1,000 fewer employees in 2019 than the year prior, a move that will endanger the lives of both workers and prisoners, according to Eric Young, president of the American Federation of Government Employees’ Council of Prison Locals.
“Right now the [Bureau of Prisons] has proposed the elimination of 6,000 unfilled positions, and today we’re going to hear about, with the roll out of the FY19 plan, the elimination of another 1,000 positions and the closure and reorganization of some prisons,” said Young.
“This isn’t right, and this isn’t safe for America. This isn’t good policy, especially when you have a president of the United States that says he supports law and order.”
According to the 2019 budget proposal, the federal prisons system had, on average, 38,513 civilian, full-time employees in 2017. That number is projected to be 36,775 in 2018 and 35,786 in 2019.
Young said that the 2019 worker numbers, which are very similar to those of 2011, create a ratio of prisoners to workers that has proven unsafe. According to prisoner projections included in the 2019 budget, that ratio would be approximately one worker for every five prisoners.
“He’s still planning on cutting positions and that just doesn’t make sense. You have the director of the Bureau of Prisons testifying on Capitol Hill, stating that four to one [ratio] is dangerous, and now they’re trying to make us go back to 2011 staffing levels,” said Young.
Federal prison populations are expected to increase under the Trump administration, as Attorney General Jeff Sessions has particularly focused on seeking the maximum sentencing for drug-related charges. The 2019 budget proposal projects that the federal prison population will include nearly 10,000 more inmates than it does today, according to Bureau of Prisons statistics.
The budget, however, relies on assumptions of reduced prison populations:
“The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) is responsive to federal efforts to fight violent crime and prosecute high priority offenders. Recent declines in the prison population coupled with the continuation of contracts with privately-operated facilities ensure that BOP has the necessary space to absorb population fluctuations. The budget maintains this capacity by funding BOP at $7.1 billion, approximately equal to the 2017 enacted level. In addition, the budget proposes to leverage economies of scale by closing two standalone minimum-security camps and instead transferring inmates to larger federal complexes. The budget also proposes to realign regional offices to eliminate duplication and reduce bureaucracy.”
According to Young, prisoner-to-worker ratios are often misleading, as they include teachers, case managers and supervisors, whose job descriptions are not meant to include serving as correctional staff within the prisons.
“The Bureau of Prisons characterized everyone as correctional officers first as a guise and a ruse to hide the real inmate-to-staff ratio,” said Young. “In order for the agency to get to that ratio, they are actually including non-custodial staff that don’t even work in that prison. For example, the regional offices, the central offices, the staff at the training academies. They’re including that as a guise.”
In addition, Young said that non-correctional staff are sometimes asked to fill in, when full-time corrections officers can’t make it into work, creating unsafe situations where secretaries and teachers are serving in positions that oversee large numbers of inmates.
“You have one officer, currently, supervising hundreds of inmates by themselves,” said Young, adding that these numbers are often responsible for inmates getting access to contraband and serious injuries caused by inmate attacks.
Lower staff numbers also increase the length of time it takes for backup officers to respond to an incident on the prison floors.
According to Young, who is himself a service-connected veteran, many employees in federal prisons are veterans, meaning that reductions in staff and benefits are also attacks on the nation’s veterans.
“They want to cut positions on the backs of our veterans and law enforcement officers,” said Young. “And when I hear these people out here talking about that they support the veterans, but then at the same time they’re trying to take away their due process rights as employees, then they’re trying to freeze their pay and take away a dignified retirement. After serving this country for many years, I just think it’s despicable.”
Jessie Bur covered the federal workforce and the changes most likely to impact government employees for Federal Times.