Prison Workforce Feels Pinch

By Kevin Johnson, USA TODAY

The nation’s unemployment crisis is now reaching far inside prison walls.

Since 2008, thousands of inmates have lost their jobs as federal authorities shutter and scale back operations at prison recycling, furniture, cable and electronics assembly factories to try to make up $65 million in losses.

The job cuts, prison officials say, mean a dramatic reduction in job training for inmates preparing for release, lost wages for prisoners to pay down child support and other court-ordered fines, and more tension in already overcrowded institutions.

“Anytime we have a loss of inmate jobs … it becomes more challenging to keep inmates constructively occupied,” federal Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman Traci Billingsley says. Bureau records show the job cuts during the past two years coincide with slight increases in serious inmate assaults on staff and other prisoners.

Slightly more than 7,000 federal prisoners have been cut from the work rolls in the past two years, and up to 800 more are expected to be dropped in the next several months, according to Federal Prison Industries records.

The latest cut, announced last week, will closenine factories scattered from Pennsylvania to California and includes reductions in staff at 11 others, Federal Prison Industries spokeswoman Julie Rozier says.

She says the cuts represent some of the largest reductions in the 75-year history of the federal prison workforce. “We’re feeling the same pressures that are present in the overall economy,” she says. This year, 16,115 of the system’s 211,146 inmates are working in the factory jobs, down from 23,152 in 2008.

Federal Prison Industries is a government corporation established by Congress in 1934 that provides training for federal inmates. The industries generate about 80 products and services for sale to the federal government. In return, inmates are paid up to $1.15 per hour. Much of that goes to child support, fines, restitution and other court-ordered obligations.

Prison guards and others fear the cuts could spark inmate unrest in overcrowded institutions where jobs — however menial — have kept prisoners occupied.

Last year, serious assaults on staffers increased to 105, up from 100 in 2008, while inmate-on-inmate assaults totaled 524, up from 475 in 2008. “This is a big concern for us,” says Bryan Lowry, president of the federal prison employees association. Because of yearly prison population increases, he says, the federal system is running 37% over capacity.

Fewer jobs mean more downtime for inmates and more crowded recreation yards and housing units. In some places, Lowry says, there is only one prison officer for about 150 inmates: “It’s not a good situation.”