Prison budget cuts can lead to danger for correctional officers

Kati Gardella, Crier Staff

Prison is inherently a stressful environment. Individuals who have committed crimes are all in one centralized setting.

By no means are prisoners evil people, especially those who are being detained for non-violent offenses. There is a portion of the prison population, however, who have a lengthy history of violent behavior.

Prisons can easily disintegrate into dangerous environments, and this breeds a lot of pressure on those who are responsible for monitoring the premise and ensuring security. This pressure is extremely psychologically impactful, as replications such as the Stanford prison experiment have shown, as well as real operating prisons where those in authority fell to corruption.

Popular media, such as Orange is the New Black often portrays correctional officers as corrupt. Therefore, there tends to be a stigma around correctional officers and their personalities. Although there have been cases of corrupt correctional officers, this is more frequently not the case.

Criminal justice is not always the most appealing field to find a job in, due to possible risks associated with the occupations. Correctional officers have one of the highest-risk jobs in the criminal justice system, and are not receiving adequate protection for the potential danger that can arise in their job.

Eric Williams was a 34-year-old correctional officer at US Penitentiary Canaan. He was stabbed to death by an inmate in 2013.

During the murder, he was stabbed over a hundred times, and had nothing to defend himself with. On his person, he only had his keys and a walkie talkie.

The inmate was convicted for the murder, but the jury was unable to reach a unanimous decision regarding the death penalty, so the inmate was sentenced to life without parole.

He was already serving a life sentence. Consequently, he was given a second life sentence, but you only really need one.

  1. S. Senator Pat Toomey stated that “corrections officers are the forgotten part of law enforcement” and that the outcome of Williams’s murder case was a “miscarriage of justice.”

Williams’ family also strongly feels that no justice was obtained, and that no punishment was given to the murderer.

Toomey proposed the bill known as Eric’s Law, and has been a very vocal advocate for the rights of correctional officers.

Eric’s Law entails that prosecutors would be permitted to impanel a second jury for sentencing in federal death penalty cases if the initial jury fails to reach a unanimous decision.

This aims to act as a deterrent against committing more crimes while in prison. Furthermore, it would also foster a sense of retribution in the institution overall, if someone who was already serving a lengthy sentence received a death sentence after committing a murder in prison.

The approval of the bill would not automatically result in more death penalties. Another result of the bill being passed is the opportunity for the crime to be examined by more than one set of jurors.

This process would not fall under the category of “double jeopardy,” and would only apply to capital murder cases. Similar laws currently exist in California and Arizona, so the concept is not unheard of.

I personally do not support the death penalty, especially since so many exonerations happen to inmates on death row.

I believe, however, that there should be further penalties for committing such a heinous crime while in prison.

The death penalty hasn’t proven to be a successful deterrent in the past, so Eric’s Law as it currently stands may not be the best solution for achieving justice, or preventing further crimes against correctional officers in the future.

Small steps are being taken to improve the safety of correctional officers.

A law that allows federal correctional officers to carry pepper spray was passed, and they are working on ones that allow them to carry more serious weapons.

A major conflict in the fight to keep prisons safer is that budgets for mental health programs and prison employee funding are often the first to be cut.

USP Canaan, where Williams was murdered, has a very low officer to prisoner ratio. Dwindling financial resources will only promote more staff positions being cut, which will further turn prisons into more dangerous environments.

En route to the US Penitentiary at Allenwood, another federal prison in Pennsylvania, is a bold billboard that states “budget cuts lead to death in federal prisons. Tell Congress.” The main feature of the billboard is a large coffin. The billboard is being funded by the American Federation of Government Employees.

Although measures like these may seem dramatic, the message that the billboard is trying to share is completely true, and it is important to raise public awareness, especially with federally owned prisons.

There are 122 federal prisons throughout the country, with varying levels of security. The Bureau of Prisons reports that there are currently 23,369 staff members employed and 155,280 inmates detained.

This is a dangerous ratio, especially at the higher security institutions, with higher risk inmates.

The address of USP Canaan is on Eric J. Williams Memorial Drive. There are currently 1,254 inmates, and 455 staff members who come in direct contact with the inmates.

There are numerous job vacancies listed on their Bureau of Prisons page, including those for various correctional officer positions and prison psychologists.

I looked through their annual report, and the different federal regulations for security. It appears that they are putting forward their best effort to prevent history from repeating itself.

Of course, change in prison is restricted to the funding that the institution is being provided with. Regardless, when more people are aware that a conflict exists, it is more likely to be eased.