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Staffing concerns raised as prison suicides climb

by Kimberly Kindy The Washington Post | September 1, 2019 at 3:23 a.m. | Updated September 1, 2019 at 3:23 a.m.

Federal inmates were killing themselves at escalating rates when President Donald Trump's administration dropped 5,156 officer and staff positions through a hiring freeze and budget cuts -- a downsizing of 14%.

The suicide rate continued to rise as staffing vacancies increased and as permanent cuts were made in 2018, with more than two dozen inmates taking their lives as prison workers and leaders failed to curb the growing problem.

Suicides like that of Jeffrey Epstein, who hanged himself while alone in a federal detention center in August after being arrested in a sex-abuse case, are predictable given conditions in the 122 federal detention centers, said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Senate's second-highest-ranking Democrat.

"I have repeatedly tried to sound the alarm about these ongoing threats to the safety and security of our Federal prison system, only to be ignored by this Administration," Durbin said in a statement to The Washington Post. "It is unacceptable that it took the suicide of a notorious inmate to force the Trump Department of Justice to finally pay attention."

Federal Bureau of Prisons officials said they eliminated officer and staff positions in an effort to "rightsize" the bureau as changes to sentencing guidelines and other factors have led to a decline in the number of inmates.

Suicide rates increased from 8.1 per 100,000 federal inmates in fiscal 2016 to 14.7 per 100,000 inmates in fiscal 2018. Sixty-six inmates took their lives during that time.

Durbin, Democratic members of Congress and prison workers say federal prisons are understaffed. This emboldens prisoners, they say, causing them to break more rules and landing them in special housing and solitary confinement at increasing rates. The isolation for inmates causes mental health issues to spike and sometimes means no cellmates are present to stop or warn about the suicides.

Federal correctional officers have expressed frustration. For the past two years, they have warned that understaffing is forcing officers to routinely work 16-hour shifts, and because that is not enough to staff the prisons, the bureau's secretaries, janitors and electricians are now doing regular patrols.

Even with the lower staffing levels that were set in 2017, the bureau has 1,652 correctional officer vacancies.

Brandon Sample, a former prisoner turned prisoners' lawyer, said understaffing is not the only problem. Even with the current staff, Sample said, the correctional officers frequently skip the walks they are supposed to make through the wards to check on prisoners. He advocates outfitting officers with body cameras to keep tabs on them.

"They are acting like this thing with Epstein, with guards not making their rounds, and falsifying documents to cover it up, that this is somehow unusual," Sample said. "This happens all the time. They just don't do it. They sit in their offices and don't come out."

Epstein was supposed to be checked every 30 minutes but was not. Also, at least eight workers knew that strict instructions had been given not to leave Epstein alone in his cell, yet the order was apparently ignored in the 24 hours leading up to his death, The Post reported.

The Justice Department is investigating whether officers skipped patrols and said it is working to address problems with understaffing.

"Hiring additional correctional officers is a top priority for both the Attorney General and the Director and they are working closely together on this issue," the department said in a statement.

Information for this article was contributed by Julie Tate of The Washington Post.

A Section on 09/01/2019

Print Headline: Staffing concerns raised as prison suicides climb

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