Articles Posted in Disturbances

Last week, Inspector General Michael Horowitz sent a memorandum to the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General concerning “Top Management and Performance Challenges Facing the Department of Justice.” The first identified challenge? Addressing the Persisting Crisis in the Federal Prison System,” namely the system’s ever escalating cost, which consumes a significant percent of DOJ’s budget, and safety and security issues stemming from chronic overcrowding.

Containing the Cost of the Federal Prison System

The costs to operate and maintain the federal prison system continue to grow, resulting in less funding being available for the Department’s other critical law enforcement missions. Although the size of the federal prison population decreased for the first time since 1980, from 219,298 inmates at the end of FY 2013 to 214,149 inmates at the end of FY 2014, and the Department now projects that the number of inmates will decrease by 10,000 in FY 2016, the downward trend has yet to result in a decrease in federal prison system costs. For example, in FY 2000, the budget for the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) totaled $3.8 billion and accounted for about 18 percent of the Department’s discretionary budget. In comparison, in FY 2014, the BOP’s enacted budget totaled $6.9 billion and accounted for about 25 percent of the Department’s discretionary budget. During this same period, the rate of growth in the BOP’s budget was almost twice the rate of growth of the rest of the Department. The BOP currently has more employees than any other Department component, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and has the second largest budget of any Department component, trailing only the FBI.  The Department’s leadership has acknowledged the dangers the rising costs of the federal prison system present to the Department’s ability to fulfill its mission in other areas. Nevertheless, federal prison spending continues to impact the Department’s ability to make other public safety investments, as the Department’s FY 2015 budget request for the BOP is a 0.5 percent increase from the enacted FY 2014 level.

Our work has identified several funding categories where rising prison costs will present particularly significant challenges in future years. For example, inmate healthcare costs constitute a rapidly growing portion of the federal prison system budget. According to BOP data, the cost for providing healthcare services to inmates increased 55 percent from FY 2006 to FY 2013. The BOP spent over $1 billion on inmate healthcare services in FY 2013, which nearly equaled the entire budget of the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) or the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). Continue Reading ›

According to a news story published Monday, USP Lee (VA)went on lockdown following a disturbance:

A federal prison in Jonesville, Va., is on lockdown after an inmate assaulted a guard Saturday, the U.S. Department of Justice reports.
The inmate, at the United States Penitentiary, Lee, punched an unnamed guard at 2:43 p.m. Saturday, according to the report. The guard was treated at Lee Regional Hospital and released later that evening, the report states.

Since this post, I have received feedback suggesting that the announced policy indispute at FCI Fairton was/is a new rule that (a) if contraband is found in common areas and (b) if the “responsible” party fails to come forward, then all the prisoners on a particular block and/or unit may be subject to successively harsher sanctions, including loss of television, loss of telephone and loss of visitation. For anyone familiar with the dynamics of institutional life, this rule, if accurately conveyed, puts prisoners in an untenable situation: either they inform on a fellow prisoner(s) and are potentially labeled a “snitch” or “rat” — a label that can carry serious risks generally but especially in a prison setting — or they face institutional reprisal(s) for essentially refusing to put themselves in harm’s way.

Also reported is that what began as a relatively benign protest to the announced policy, involving successive units of prisoners walking past the chow call when called out for a meal (i.e., denying food), resulted almost immediately in the institution locking down the entire facility for ten days. As reflected in the memorandum, the lockdown occurred just before the holidays, meaning it seems that Fairton prisoners were denied communication and/or contact with their families and loved ones during what is, for most, an important time of the year. Of course, when an institution is on lockdown (and prisoners are confined to their cells), the need for staff presence is lessened. In other words, the situation appears to have afforded an opportunity for staff to make use of unused leave time if they were so inclined.

The feedback received also confirms an encouraging aspect of the incident, namely that medium-security prisoners did apparently elect to pursue a constructive protest when faced with what they viewed as an objectionable policy and maintained a degree of solidarity after what can be fairly characterized as institutional overreaction. Less reassuring is word that the lockdown presented particular difficulties for prisoners suffering from mental health issues. Also, there is word that prisoners involved with organizing the nonviolent action may have been transferred from the facility.

Over the holidays a colleague forwarded the memorandum below, which, if authentic*, indicates that FCI Fairton was (and possibly still is) on lockdown due a prisoner food strike over “dissatisfaction with the new procedures related to contraband found in common areas,” that is, “the new accountability procedures and sanctions [that] have been implemented.”
Fairton Lockdown

Given how frequently prison disturbances that arise from questionable institutional management practices are associated with physical confrontations and violence (i.e., riots — see here, as an example) the idea that a medium-security population would attempt to effect change of a disputed institutional policy through nonviolence is both refreshing and encouraging. As Mahatma Gandhi poignantly observed: “Nonviolence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind. It is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man.” While it is not surprising that an institution would respond to a nonviolent protest by locking down the population, as opposed to engaging in constructive dialogue that might produce a mutually agreeable resolution, it is nonetheless disappointing.
Perhaps the action at Fairton population foreshadows a trend, however. The Bureau of Prisons abounds with problems and deficiencies ripe for attention: chronic overcrowding, over-/misuse of isolation housing units, prisoner displacement from loved ones and their communities, insufficient programming opportunities, poor medical and mental health care, systemic refusal to permit “compassionate release,” incidents of violence, indefensible telephone rates and unpalatable food, just to name a few. Unfortunately, where states have been actively in engaging in sentencing and prison reform in an effort to get “smart on crime,” the federal government talks about change but its prison population continues to grow unabated, as it has since the 1980s. The question is begged whether those most directly impacted by draconian federal sentencing laws and practices might ever seek to have their voices heard through widespread, organized nonviolence. In the words of Martin Luther King: “This is the unusual thing about nonviolence — nobody is defeated, everybody shares in the victory.”

*In over 15 years working with federal prisoners, I’ve seen various “official” documents that, upon closer inspection, prove not to be genuine. In view of the source here, however, I do not seriously question the document’s authenticity.

From Kansas City’s KMBC comes word of a lockdown at USP Leavenworth following an outbreak of disturbances:

The United States Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan., was placed on lockdown Saturday after fights broke out.

Prison officials said there were three fights in one of the housing units, and two large groups gathered on the recreation yard. The Federal Bureau of Prisons said staff members were able to bring the situation under control.

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