For the past several weeks, the American people have been watching the news of the potential "sequestration," the sequel to the Fiscal Cliff. We've seen President Obama talk about Hell and high water in an effort to avert the automatic spending cuts, and more recently we've seen him back off from his damning proclamations of what is to come if the sequester comes to fruition. What we haven't heard is what this has the potential to do to the nation's prison population, specifically those incarcerated within the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Perhaps it's time we look at the facts.
According to Attorney General Eric Holder and Department of Justice spokespersons, the Federal Bureau of Prisons has a total of 188 federal facilities and 16 private facilities (which are operated by a number of private, for-profit prison companies). These facilities are, on average, 38% over the rated capacity (138% capacity). These prisons and other detention locations house 217,249 federal inmates, a number which is expected to rise to 229,300 by the end of 2013. To manage this huge population of inmates, and all that is required to safely and securely house them, the Federal Bureau of Prisons had a budget of $6.6 billion in 2012. But due to the sequestration, their 2013 budget was cut by a total of $338 million. Included in this budget is the cost to employ 41,310 Federal Bureau of Prisons' staff; 19,756 of which are prison guards or other non-executive level staff who will most likely be impacted by the Sequester via potential furloughs.
As we all well know, the Federal Bureau of Prisons -- as is the case with all prison systems and other centers of secure detention -- are first and foremost concerned with security: of the institution, the protection of prison or detention center staff, the protection of the public, and the protection of those incarcerated within such facilities. This ability to operate a secure prison system is hindered by such budget cuts. In fact, the Federal Bureau of Prisons' budget has been cut by 5% ($338 million) due to the sequestration. This is a cause for the BOP to engage in extreme public fear mongering and to employ an overstated response to the budget reduction, if only to bring more attention to their cause.
The real problem with the Federal Bureau of Prisons' budget is that it is mostly based upon static expenses. While inmates are currently being released as they should be (and will continue to be regardless of budgetary issues), the sequestration is not resulting in additional releases, though this would be a great idea for how to reduce costs. As such, the cost to house existing inmates remains constant. What doesn't, though, is the cost to employ staff. And this is exactly where cuts will start.
The Department of Justice has stated that the 5% reduction in budget will mostly be achieved by a hiring freeze and furloughing 36,700 Federal Bureau of Prisons staff members. These staff members will be furloughed for an average of 12 days. News on the ground is that each local level, non-executive level staff member will be furloughed for one day a month. This will result in a reduction of BOP expenses, but has potentially far-reaching complications. These complications primarily revolve around inmate activities due to the (potentially perceived) staff shortages.
According to Jeremy Gordon, an attorney who specializes in federal post-conviction relief, if Congress doesn't come up with a new budget in short order, the Federal Bureau of Prisons will not be able to activate the 5 new facilities which they had planned to open in 2013. These would have added an additional 8,100 beds to the BOP's capacity and helped to reduce the 138% overcapacity figure. To add to these prisons not being activated, partial or total lockdowns at other prisons could result; staff will certainly be furloughed (starting in late April); and inmate activity programs could take a hit. This programming could include educational, rehabilitative, and even the Federal Bureau of Prisons' Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP); the program which allows federal inmates to receive a one year time reduction upon completion.
As for the truth behind all of this, it's a mixed bag. I think that President Obama's dramatic reversal in position is telling. In all likelihood, his toned down comments in recent days are aimed at curbing negative responses from the stock market. This probably shows that while the sequestration won't harm the majority of Americans -- they may not feel any effect -- it could significantly impact federal inmates and federal prison guards. But how much is the question. This isn't so easy to tell since there is a lot of political posturing going on at the moment.
What is certain is that now is not the time to panic. Federal inmates are not going to be locked down today, and probably not tomorrow. Any such actions will occur starting in late April. But much can happen prior to these furloughs becoming a reality. As Congress has proven time and time again, they are more than willing to vote when it suits them. The sequestration certainly doesn't further any of their positions, as they will hear it from the federal agencies and their powerful unions. As such, they might very well resolve the budget battle before these drastic actions begin to really affect the Federal Bureau of Prisons. We can only hope. We can also hope that this prompts the powers that be to review protocols to lower the number of federal inmates (e.g., parole, additional good conduct time, etc.) and, thus, reduce the budgetary costs of housing and securing them. Again, we can only hope.
Just the same, I'll be preparing for the worst. Like a homeowner in the path of a storm who keeps their pantry stocked with bottled water, batteries, and canned soup, I too will be stocking my prison locker. But I will be stocking it with tuna, soda, cereal, batteries, and soap. Perhaps even a few boxes of those delightful pecan twirls (you can never eat only one, after all). I'll be doing so just in case the Federal Bureau of Prisons lives up to their acronym: Backwards on Purpose (BOP).