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Arrests of Federal Prison Guards Soar 90% Over Past Decade; Misconduct Cases Double

According to a September 2011 report by the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG), arrests of federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) guards increased almost 90% over the previous ten years, while staffing in the BOP grew only 24% over the same period of time. From fiscal year 2001 to 2010, a total of 272 BOP guards were arrested. The report did not state how many cases originated from privately-operated prisons.

The OIG also noted that misconduct investigations involving BOP guards had doubled from 2,299 in FY 2001 to 4,603 in FY 2010, with more than half of the offenses committed during the guards’ first two years on the job, and recommended that the BOP improve its hiring, training and supervision of rookie officers. Also affecting the rise in misconduct cases was an increasing number of female prisoners and young offenders, and an increase in the number of private facilities holding federal prisoners.

The BOP’s past hiring practices for guards often resulted in a lower quality of applicants, according to the report. Salaries and benefits for state prison guards have generally tended to be lower than for sworn officers in municipal police departments in the same geographic area. BOP guard salaries are higher than state salaries, but still tend to be lower than police department salaries except where federal prisons are located in rural areas. Thus, more qualified applicants are more likely to seek employment with police agencies than the BOP.

According to Barry Krisberg, a law professor at the Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice, some guards in both public and private prisons mistakenly think their actions will have no consequences because the disciplinary process is so convoluted.

“Screenings are a good start, but what we need is far better training in terms of what the expectations of the jobs are, better supervision to [find] potential problems and ways to deal with complaints about their behavior,” he stated.

Robert Parkinson, author of a book about Texas prisons, noted that as the number of female prisoners increases, so does the rate of sexual harassment and sexual abuse by guards. Further, prisoners are trending younger. “In federal prisons, it used to just be drug kingpins, tax-fraud prisoners, assassins. But now it’s become full of more low-level offenders, which ironically makes for more violent prisoners. A middle-aged kingpin is a relatively calm, responsible guy, whereas an 18-year-old ... selling meth ... is going to be a lot more impulsive.”

Joe Baumann, a guard at the California State Rehabilitation Center, said that better training and pay vastly improved the quality of guard hires. “The caliber of person just went up. More people had degrees, previous employment, or previous careers when the pay scale went up. We started getting a lot more people from private enterprise. Prior to that, we got a lot of people who worked fast food [or] manual labor jobs.”

He also criticized privately-operated facilities. “Private prisons aren’t always held to the same standards as public ones,” he noted. “That’s where so much of the stuff I come across is from, the private contractors.”

Although prison guards comprise about 42% of BOP employees, they accounted for 63% of misconduct allegations in FY 2010. Slightly more than half of the misconduct allegations made against guards were substantiated and resulted in discipline of at least a 1-day suspension. The BOP employed 16,009 guards at the end of FY 2010; as noted above, there were 4,603 allegations of guard misconduct during that fiscal year.

The BOP had no comment on the OIG report or the increase in the number of cases involving misconduct by and arrests of federal prison guards.

Sources: Los Angeles Times; McClatchy-Tribune; “Enhanced Screening of BOP Correctional Officer Candidates Could Reduce Likelihood of Misconduct,” DOJ Office of the Inspector General, Report 1-2011-002 (Sept. 2011)

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