Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Prison Outlook: More Inmates, Less Staff

History Suggests It is a Recipe for Disaster

One out of about every 40 Oklahoma adults is under some form of correctional control. There are now more inmates and fewer staff than ever in the history of the Oklahoma Department Corrections. Add to the mix summer heat and program and visitation cuts and it becomes a volatile combination for an under funded prison system.

"This is a crisis,” Corrections Director Justin Jones told the Daily Oklahoman. "We have every ingredient for a very dangerous recipe. Our job is to make sure it doesn't cook up.”

According to the Oklahoman, during the past fiscal year, the number of inmates in Oklahoma increased by 737, bringing the total to 24,849. About 180 staff members were lost to buyouts. The 4,364 remaining staff will be required to take 23 mandatory furlough days starting this month. In August and September, another 119 employees are expected to take buyouts.

My Take

This scenario is being played out in state capitols across the country. Prisoner counts expand while corrections budgets constrict. History tells us that this is a dangerous proposition.

In the summer and fall of 1989, inmates at Pennsylvania's Camp Hill State Correctional Institution were unhappy about overcrowding and suspended privileges. At the time, Camp Hill's capacity was 1,826 but the facility housed more then 2,600 inmates running at a 142% of capacity.

On October 25th, a three day riot erupted. On the first day, the rioters took at least 8 hostages, started several fires and caused millions of dollars in damage. More then 40 staff members, inmates, police and firefighters were injured.

The worst uprising in Pennsylvania history continued for a second day. The superintendent was meeting with inmates when day two of rioting began. The inmates took another 17 hostages and injured 138 officers. About 800 Pennsylvania State Troopers responded and ultimately put down the riot by force after negotiations on day three failed.

Are prisons across the country facing a summer of discontent? Can fewer guards oversee more prisoner? How will prisoners react to suspended programming opportunities or less privileges due to budget cuts? Prison is a dangerous place even with the tightest controls, what will prison be like without the resources to manage it effectively?

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