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New Picture on Violence in Federal Prisons

As the federal prison population continues to rise – to over 206,500 prisoners as of mid-year 2009 – violence in the U.S. Bureau of Prisons (BOP) is both up and down, according to recent data obtained from BOP officials.

Last summer PLN reported increasing levels of violence in the BOP, focusing largely on U.S. Penitentiaries (USPs), high-security facilities that house some of the BOP’s most dangerous prisoners. [See: PLN, Aug. 2009, p.10]. Anecdotal evidence from assaults, riots and homicides at USPs and other federal prisons suggested a trend toward increased violence, but new data suggests otherwise.

The rate of serious prisoner-on-prisoner assaults in BOP facilities has steadily decreased from 13.06 assaults per 5,000 prisoners in 2005 to 10.46 in 2008.

Likewise, the rate of serious prisoner-on-staff assaults has decreased. In 2005 there were 3.70 serious assaults on staff per 5,000 prisoners, compared to only 2.17 in 2008. Traci Billingsley, a spokesperson for the BOP, acknowledged the decline. “As you can see from the numbers, we really haven’t experienced an increase in the rate of serious assaults on staff over the past several years,” she said. However, Billingsley also noted that “there is a sense that the assaults are more severe.”

While the rate of serious assaults has been in decline, the number of prisoner-on-prisoner homicides in BOP facilities has been increasing. In 2005 there were 12 prisoner homicides. In 2006 that number dropped to four, but rebounded in 2007 to 12 murders, then increased to 15 in 2008. Over the past ten years there has only been one prison staff member murdered in the BOP.

Less serious assaults on staff also have increased. In 2005 there were 38.94 non-serious assaults on BOP staff members per 5,000 prisoners. In 2006 the number dropped to 37.45, then decreased again the following year to 34.45 but jumped to 40.29 assaults per 5,000 prisoners in 2008.

Less serious prisoner-on-prisoner assaults have been up and down, but mostly up with 58.64 per 5,000 prisoners in 2005, 64.35 in 2006, 69.52 in 2007, and 67.93 in 2008.

The new data from the BOP comes at a time when the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) – the union that represents federal prison guards – is pushing for additional funding from Congress to hire more guards, using the argument that violence in federal prisons is out of control.

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Prisons, Bureau of Justice Statistics

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