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August 22, 2004 - The Associated Press (US)

Union Leaders Say Federal Prisons Overcrowded, Understaffed

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MINNEAPOLIS - Minnesota's four federal prisons are overcrowded and short on staff, according to leaders of the facilities employee unions.

They provided several examples of how tight budgets are affecting the institutions that hold inmates sentenced by the federal courts.

  • Some new arrivals at Sandstone spend a week or two in the disciplinary unit, commonly known as "the hole," until regular beds open up.
  • Some prisoners sleep in what were meant to be TV rooms at Waseca, which has about 300 more prisoners than its 800 capacity.
  • Inmate training programs are suffering at Duluth.
  • Security patrols around the perimeter fence in Rochester may be cut.

"We're not adequately staffed now," said Bill Joenks of Waseca, a warehouse foreman and president of Prison Local 801 of the American Federation of Government Employees. "We're all going through the same thing."

"Like most other federal agencies, the bureau's facing a constrained budget," Bureau of Prisons spokesman Dan Dunne said.

"As the inmate population continues to grow, the cost of operating federal prisons is increasing. It's happened at a time when the priority had to be placed on defense and (national) security," Dunne said.

Dunne said the safety of prison workers has not been undermined.

"One of our agency's highest priorities is ensuring we can maintain staff safety," he said. "That is something we will not compromise."

Across the country, the federal prison population has tripled since 1990, while staffs have less than doubled. The inmate population was 33 to 39 percent over capacity a year ago, according to the federal Bureau of Prisons.

A six-week hiring freeze ends Monday, but the bureau has said budget problems may require job cuts and transfers next year that "could affect every staff member and position."

Union leaders say federal prison staffing is only 87 to 91 percent of authorized numbers.

Meanwhile, the federal government is planning for new prisons.

"We are managing more dangerous and aggressive offenders, including more gang-affiliated inmates, and we are encountering increases in inmate assaults on other inmates and on staff," Harley Lappin, director of the Bureau of Prisons, told congressional subcommittees earlier this year,

Lappin said the government plans to open 17 new prisons by 2008. It has more than 100 now. It is expanding some old ones as the inmate population swells with drug sentences, which account for more than half of all prisoners.

A new $18 million-plus building under construction at Sandstone will hold more than 500 inmates, said Xavier Villarreal, a Sandstone counselor who is president of union Local 683. "That will fill up in a New York minute, (but) they don't know how they're going to staff it."

Meanwhile, desks and walls have been ripped out and some two-man cubicles now hold four inmates, Villarreal said. "They have no room. They are bunked in like sardines."

In Waseca, where the prison is on a former University of Minnesota campus, some rooms have eight inmates, Joenks said. "They've pushed the beds tighter and tighter."

Only one or two officers may be available to respond to an overnight emergency, union officials in Sandstone and Waseca said.

"The prison is not safe," said Waseca's Joenks.

In Duluth, a lack of staffing is "weakening our abilities," said Mark Karakash, a cook supervisor and Local 3935 president. "We're able to meet our goals as far as running the prison, (but) you're a lot more stressed."

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