Sequestration Will Wreak Chaos On U.S. Federal Prisons

Business Insider

Sequestration will hit each and every aspect of the U.S. government, but for the Bureau of Prisons, the impact could be horrifying. 

According to the Attorney General's office, the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) will have to handle a rising number of inmates with a major budget reduction, a cut of $338 million. 

And while other agencies can find ways to do more with less — for example, by reducing procurement, enacting hiring freezes or cutting services — BOP has to maintain constant security at federal prisons around the country with even less money. The solutions will not be pretty. 

In an email to Business Insider, a spokesperson from the Department of Justice said that they are "acutely concerned about staff and inmate safety should sequestration occur."

The Department indicated that it may at times maintain a minimum level of staff for security purposes, and that lock-downs may be required. 

The Bureau  oversees 188 facilities  and contracts 16 facilities out to private prison companies. Currently, there is a grand total of 217,249 inmates in the federal prison system, a number BOP   expects to rise  to 229,300 by the end of 2013.  In 2012, the BOP had a budget of $6.6 billion, with 41,310 employees. Correctional officers make up around half of the staff, with 19,756 employees in 2012. 

According to DOJ, the sequester budget cuts will result in 5 percent reduction in the Bureau's workforce, which will be achieved by freezing future hiring and furloughing 36,700 staff for an average of 12 days. This means that almost every employee will have to go home without pay for some time, leaving BOP to function at unnecessarily low security levels. 

Attorney General Eric Holder indicated that this reduction in force would endanger the lives of staff and inmates. 

According to the Attorney General, the BOP will have to implement full or partial lock downs across the board. In a letter to Senate Appropriations Chair Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), Holder said " This would leave inmates idle, increasing the likelihood of inmate misconduct, violence, and other risks to correctional workers and inmates."

Complicating all of this is the fact that the federal prison system is already severely overcapacity.

According to the 2012 Justice Department annual report, the system is 38 percent overcapacity, a problem that the Department has identified as a major weakness.

But efforts to find a solution will be thwarted by the sequester. 

In 2013, the BOP was slated to activate 5 new prisons throughout the system, alleviating the crunch with 8,100 new beds. In addition to cuts in guards, those projects will have to be delayed, exacerbating the overcrowding problem further. 

On top of these issues, Holder reported that the BOP will be forced to curtail or cancel some of the crucial rehabilitation programs that bring long term savings to the criminal justice system. He wrote: 

Further, limiting or eliminating inmate programs such as drug treatment and vocational education would, in fact, lead to higher costs to taxpayers and communities 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.

The Washington State Institute for Public Policy found that the Residential Drug Abuse Treatment Program (RDAP) cost an average of $3,100 per inmate but caused an average net cost savings of $5,230, a benefit of $2.69 for every $1 spent. The BOP found that offenders who participate in RDAP are 16 percent less likely to be re-arrested or return to prison and are 15 percent less likely to use drugs. 

Prison Vocational Training, the WSIPP study found, cost $1,960 per inmate with a net cost savings of $12,017, bringing $7.13 in benefits for every $1 invested. Inmates who participate in Federal Prison Industries are 24 percent less likely to return to the system for as long as 12 years, and are 14 percent more likely to be employed within a year. 

In short, crucial programs that bring economic and judicial benefit down the line are destined to be slashed as a result of sequestration.  .

"I am acutely concerned about staff and inmate safety should cuts of the sequestration's magnitude hit BOP," Holder said in a letter. "To be blunt, sequestration means less money, not fewer inmates."

"This kind of dangerous situation is exactly why sequestration needs to be avoided."

Jesselyn McCurdy, an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union who specializes in civil liberties in the criminal justice system, is very concerned about the impact that the cuts will have on inmates. 

“"Sequestration could result in disaster for people in federal prisons who already live in dangerously overcrowded conditions,”" McCurdy said.

The private prison industry, which is largely dependent on federal contracts, is also worried about the cuts. Damon Hininger, CEO of  Corrections Corporation of America, one of the largest private prison companies, voiced these concerns on a February 14 call to investors. 

"So, the potential sequestration scheduled for March of 2013 has created some uncertainty for the government," Hininger told investors, according to a transcript posted by Seeking Alpha. "While many believe that Congress will find a way to stop or delay sequestration in advance of April, we will continue obviously to monitor very closely." 



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