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Prison violence on the rise.

ON AUG. 23, 2003, a 37-year-old prisoner strangled fellow inmate and former priest John Geoghan to death. Since the correction system was unable to protect this high-profile inmate, people began to wonder how many others were being failed behind prison walls. The incident brought to light growing concerns over inmate security and staffing levels. Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Massachusetts, where Geoghan was killed, is only one example of an ongoing problem that local jails, state and Federal prisons, and juvenile detention centers are lacing. These facilities are overcrowded and understaffed, causing safety concerns not only for inmates, but for those employed to supervise the convicted offenders. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that there are more than 2,166,260 Americans housed in correctional facilities.

The U.S. has the largest incarceration rate in the world and many experts believe that this is the result of the "get tough" sentencing laws of the 1990s. Correctional facilities now are filled with nonviolent repeat offenders and drug addicts. These laws were passed during a time when funds were available to build more jails and prisons and money could be used to hire additional officers to oversee the increasing inmate population. These resources no longer exist. States are looking at combined deficits of more than $75,000,000,000 and jails and prisons are filled to capacity, or close to it. Seventeen states recently reported increases of at least five percent in inmate population, with Maine up 11.5% and Rhode Island 8.6%.

While inmate populations continue to grow, staffing levels in most facilities either have stagnated or decreased. Oftentimes, the first to be hit by cutbacks are the men and women employed to supervise inmates. This means that, as the inmate population multiplies, there is less staff" on hand to supervise those placed in the system's care.

In the last formal report of the jail system conducted by the Bureau of Justice, the ratio of inmates per correction officer jumped from 2.9 to 4.3. The ratio of inmates per correction officer in state and Federal correctional facilities rose from 4.6 to 4.8.

State and Federal correctional facilities report a 27% increase in inmate-on-inmate assaults and a 32% rise in inmate-on-staff attacks. This data coincides with reports that facilities are filled beyond capacity. In fact, it is reported that state prisons are operating between one and 16% above capacity, while Federal prisons are at 31%.

It has been easy to overlook the increase of crime inside correctional facilities because of a focus on the decreasing national crime rates on the street. When these lawbreakers are arrested, they bring their criminality inside prison walls. A perfect example is New York City's Rikers Island--the world's largest penal colony--which faces the dilemma of too many inmates and not enough correction officers. Since the layoff; of 2003, crime inside the jail has risen 20% and the suicide rates of inmates have increased dramatically.

Politicians boast that they are keeping the streets safer than ever, which logically follows since more offenders are being placed behind bars. Taking criminals off the streets should be a priority, but placing lawbreakers inside facilities that are lacking the staff necessary to maintain proper safety puts hundreds of civilian employees, such as doctors, nurses, and counselors--as well as inmates--at risk on a daily basis.

Some states have tried to combat this problem by reducing inmate populations. Michigan has halted mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. Texas and Washington have eased their sentencing laws and several states, including Kansas and California, have new legislation requiring drag treatment rather than prison time for nonviolent offenses. Other facilities are taking a different tack. Several are implementing harsher punishments. Officers are able to use pepper spray if an inmate poses a threat and they have the fight to handcuff dangerous prisoners to nylon tubes. Guards also may debilitate an inmate with an electronic stun shield, which injects enough electricity to incapacitate an individual for 30 seconds. The Body Orifice Scanning System (BOSS) also may be employed, making it almost impossible to conceal weapons. San Francisco jails use a screening process to sort out violent, aggressive inmates. They then place the prisoners with records for violence in separate areas.

In addition, many jails and prisons use an inmate-classification system to determine suicidal tendencies. Some have updated their suicide training, while the majority have unstable prisoners on suicide watch. In New York City, where inmate suicide has skyrocketed, the Commissioner of Correction is requiring selected prisoners to wear "suicide smocks"--special one-piece garments that cannot be made into nooses. He also has sought to monitor inmate telephone conversations without approval as a way of increasing safety.

For the most part, however, the methods implemented to curb crime levels inside jails and prisons are ineffective. Moreover, lawyers and prison policy experts have taken issue with the idea of tapping phone calls. They say the plan violates basic privacy issues and think the proposal is excessive and unnecessary. The implementation of new technology has not helped, either. Many believe the high-tech weapons potentially could be harmful as well as incite assaults on inmates by officers.

Those directly affected by the dangerous conditions are doing their best to remedy the situation. Protests have been organized, petitions signed, and letters to the editor written. In 2001, representatives from the correction officers' union in Massachusetts held a protest at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center, calling for more staff. This warning was ignored and conditions continued to worsen, as evidenced by Geoghan's murder. Sometimes, though, the results are positive. In New York, for instance, I, as president of the Correction Officers' Benevolent Association, took a public stand, stating that layoffs created an unsafe working environment for staff and inmates. After much media attention, the Department of Correction reinstated 250 of the 315 officers who had been laid off. The Commissioner admitted that, by rehiring the officers, the department would save $15,000,000--money that had been lost due to overtime necessary to maintain order in the jails.

Overcrowding induced seven states, including Texas, Louisiana, and Oregon. to reduce sentences and repeal mandatory minimum terms passed during the 1980s and 1990s. The California Department of Correction recently implemented changes to its Inmate Classification System. This system is based on prediction of risk, and inmates are assigned to one of four custody levels: maximum, high-medium. low-medium, and minimum. These levels will determine where inmates will be held. how much supervision they will require, and the amount of access they will have to the community. It also is employed to curb inmate-on-inmate violence by separating nonviolent and violent offenders.

Some facilities, such as those in Oregon, have thought about redesigning the layout of their jail or prison to get rid of potentially dangerous blind spots in hallways and doorways. Those in favor of renovating also point out that the cell bars pose suicide dangers. It has been suggested that the bars be replaced with quarter-inch, scratch-resistant polycarbonate glazing on the inside of the door panel. In 1998, two San Francisco jails were redesigned in this manner and saw a significant decrease in inmate rape.

Prompted by the record number of inmates behind bars and decreasing funds, many correction officials are focusing on drug and alcohol treatment, education, and job training to combat the problem. The Vera Institute of Justice reported that, in 2003 alone, Kansas earmarked $6,600,000 to increase inmate counseling and rehabilitation. Michigan and at least five other states have started drag courts as an alternative to locking up nonviolent offenders, while five states have repealed parole regulations thought to be too harsh.

The government needs to recognize that there are ways to save money without endangering the lives of correctional facility staff and inmates. If states and cities continue to employ "get tough" laws, they cannot cut back on staff. Needless money is spent on overtime and unemployment when officers are laid off, defeating the purpose of cutting expenses. In the end, there really are no alternatives to money spent on maintaining safe and secure correctional facilities. Funding by municipalities and states must remain proportionate to the changes in inmate population.

Norman Seabrook is president of the Correction Officers' Benevolent Association. Inc., New York.
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Title Annotation:Law & Justice
Author:Seabrook, Norman
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2005
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