By Courtney Feroli
LEWISBURG — The U.S. Penitentiary at Lewisburg is far from alone in confronting safety concerns caused by inadequate funding.
A Lewisburg Penitentiary corrections officer on Monday was stabbed by an inmate using a 4-foot-long spear, the 44th incident at the lockup this year.
Employees of the prison system have been concerned about their safety because they say there are not enough guards watching the inmates, said Tony Liesenfeld, secretary/treasurer of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 148.
Similar funding-related problems are being seen at federal correctional institutions throughout Central Pennsylvania and across the country.
The issue hits hard in Central and Northeastern Pennsylvania, home to 20 percent of the nation’s federal correctional institutions, said U.S. Rep. Chris Carney, who has successfully petitioned the House Appropriations Committee for more than $1 billion in extra federal corrections funds in the previous and current fiscal years.
Over the past 20 years, the federal prison population has increased at twice the rate of staff levels, Carney said in a letter to key legislators seeking an increase in funding. At the end of 2008, federal prisons were operating at 138 percent their official capacities, Carney said.
Recent numbers show the U.S. Penitentiary at Lewisburg has 1,112 inmates at its main facility, and 520 at its camp. The official inmate capacity for the main penitentiary is 770 and 552 at the camp. Only 88 percent of Lewisburg’s correctional positions are filled — 260 out of a possible 295.
“There may be 88 percent staffing at the facility, but the inmate population is 20 percent over capacity,” said Bill Gillette, northeast regional vice president for the council of prison locals for the American Federation of Government Employees. “They are down a lot.”
Federal facilities in Lewisburg, Allenwood and Minersville, Schuylkill County, are all over capacity and understaffed.
“I just want people to understand that this isn’t so much about an attack or charge against any administrator at the facilities,” Gillette said. “They are doing the best they can under the circumstances and resources they are given. … We have to operate on the budget that is given to us.”
Allenwood has three correctional facilities. Its Low Security Correctional Institution has a capacity of 992 but has 1,428 inmates; its Federal Correctional Institution has a capacity of 938 but has 1,459 inmates; and its U.S. Penitentiary has a capacity of 640 but has 1,155 inmates.
Allenwood facilities have 413 correctional positions filled of a possible 439 positions.
There are 1,309 inmates at the Federal Correctional Institution at Schuylkill in Minersville, while the official capacity is 848. There are 307 inmates at its camp, which has an official capacity of 296.
Schuylkill facilities have 122 correctional positions filled of a possible 136.
“When you look at the numbers … based on capacity rates of inmates … you may be at 94 percent for 600 inmates, but you have to deal with more than 1,000, and still accomplish your duties in that eight-hour time frame,” said Gillette, the prison workers union official.
“This has been an ongoing issue for five or six years now.”
Carney, D-10 of Dimock, said he has successfully pushed for increased funding. In fiscal year 2009, the Department of Justice and the Bureau of Prisons requested $95.8 million for buildings and facilities. Carney wrote to the House Appropriations Committee requesting $400 million and received $575.8 million.
“The prisons have been woefully under-funded for far too long,” said Carney, who has visited every prison in his district. “That’s why I requested more” for fiscal years 2009 and 2010.
Carney obtained additional funding for fiscal year 2010 by requesting an additional $496.7 million to the $96.7 million already requested by the Department of Justice and the Bureau of Prisons. Expenses for salaries were also increased by $5.59 billion for fiscal year 2009. A request for $6.47 billion for fiscal year 2010 was submitted and the result is pending.
Funding for prisons has been an important issue for Carney to address.
“There’s a certain sense of complacency in the general public of ‘out of sight, out of mind,’” Carney said. “We need the public to understand that prisons are understaffed and overcrowded, and we are working very hard to fix the problem. Prison populations are going up at a very dramatic rate. Communities need to understand what’s at stake. I’m very upset by prison violence, but I’m not surprised. We cannot risk another incident like we did at USP Atwater” where a corrections officer at the California lockup was murdered by a prisoner in June 2008.
Increased inmate numbers and the resulting safety concerns don’t just affect prisons, Gillette said. Surrounding communities are also at risk.
“When there is a tendency to not staff up fully, what essentially happens is there are more disruptions in the prisons and more opportunities for staff and inmates to get hurt,” Gillette said. “When inmates get hurt they have to be treated at an outside facility in the community, which is a potential threat.”
While the problems have lingered, both the union representative and the congressman said there has been progress made.
“It’s important for folks to know that no one is pointing fingers,” Gillette said. “This issue is bigger than anything local. A lot of stuff has to be resolved legislatively. … The issue isn’t about higher salaries. We’re just talking about safety and necessary resources. We take an oath to protect our homeland by the jobs that we do. I’m just hoping ... to spark awareness that we play a significant role in homeland security.”
Carney said he is pleased with the progress.
“I’m very proud we were able to help get more funding,” Carney said. “To be able to make strides in such a short period of time is a testament to the partnership we have with penitentiaries and the staff. We pay attention to the issues. We really care.”
Gillette said Carney has been a “good advocate for us and we appreciate it.”
Just because Congress allocates funds does not always mean it trickles down to the intended agency. Last year, $300 million set aside for the Bureau of Prisons was diverted to other Homeland Security programs by the Office of Management and Budget.
“Just by the stroke of a pen ... that prevented us from opening new prisons, hiring 2,500 new staff, prevented us from getting new technology,” Gillette said.