Union criticizes prison bureau for understaffing, lack of safety equipment

The American Federation of Government Employees blasted the leadership of the Bureau of Prisons on Thursday, saying the agency was understaffed and jeopardized corrections officers’ safety by failing to provide them with stab-resistant vests. An agency spokeswoman said the bureau was working on both issues.

“We have lost all faith in the Bureau of Prisons management,” said John Gage, president of AFGE. “We think their whole understanding of the mission of the bureau is outdated, it’s wrong. We are taking our case to the attorney general; we believe it is his responsibility to correct this situation immediately.”

Between 2002 and 2006, the agency lost about 4,600 correctional officers as the inmate population in federal prisons rose, according to Phil Glover, legislative coordinator for AFGE’s Council of Prison Locals. In 2000, there were 145,000 people incarcerated at 115 federal prison facilities, the union said. Today, those facilities hold 205,000 inmates.

Inadequate staffing contributed to an increase in violent incidents, AFGE officials said. Between fiscal 2005 and 2006, inmate assaults on other inmates rose 15.5 percent, and assaults on prison staff rose 6 percent, according to the union’s statistics.

President Obama included funding for a Bureau of Prisons staff boost in his fiscal 2010 budget proposal, but Gage said he was concerned that the agency’s director, Harley Lappin, would spend the money on other priorities. Felicia Ponce, a spokeswoman for the bureau, said the agency planned to make new hires “to the maximum extent possible within the enacted resources.”

Staffing is only one of the issues AFGE is targeting. Union officials said the bureau should provide all correctional officers with stab-resistant vests when they work in dangerous units. The vests cost about $400 each, and must be custom-fitted to be effective.

In a November letter to Lappin and a May follow-up to Attorney General Eric Holder, AFGE said the bureau was making vests available only to corrections officers who asked for them. The agency then subjected those officers to disciplinary action if they did not wear the vests at all times, even if they were doing office work, union officials said.

Ponce said the final policy would be determined by negotiations between the Council of Prison Locals and the bureau, echoing the agency’s March 2009 response to AFGE General Counsel Mark Roth’s November letter.

“Both the union and BOP management supported ordering and issuing stab-resistant vests to staff prior to conducting bargaining,” Ponce said. “Negotiations regarding the vests are presently under way, and the parties have successfully negotiated many proposals.”

Gage said he thought the agency should not wait until bargaining is over to give officers vests and nonlethal weapons such as pepper spray, Tasers and batons.

Safety issues have become particularly heated as the one-year anniversary of the murder of corrections officer Jose Rivera by two federal inmates approaches. Rivera’s family has filed a $100 million lawsuit against the bureau, Lappin and other agency officials.

The Justice Department Board of Inquiry’s report on Rivera’s June 20, 2008, stabbing found that the U.S. penitentiary in Atwater, Calif., where Rivera worked, had 332 staffers, even though there were 389 positions available. Thirty percent of the prison’s workers had less than three years of experience, and 80 percent had been with the bureau for less than a decade.

The report also noted that the coroner who examined Rivera determined the cause of his death was two stab wounds that punctured his heart, though he was stabbed many more times. AFGE and Mark Peacock, the lawyer representing Rivera’s family, contend that if Rivera had been wearing a stab-resistant vest, he would not have died in the assault.

Ponce said that because court cases against Rivera’s assailants and Peacock’s civil suit are pending, and because the bureau has not released the Board of Inquiry’s report, the bureau would not comment on the report or its recommendations.

source: http://www.govexec.com/dailyfed/0609/061209ar1.htm?rss=getoday&oref=rss

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