Overcrowding, budget cuts a risky mix for federal corrections officers

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by CHRIS INGALLS / KING 5 News

Bio | Email | Follow: @cjingalls

KING5.com

Posted on February 11, 2013 at 11:13 PM

Updated Tuesday, Nov 26 at 2:37 AM

Prosecutors don’t know the reason why, but they say Sabir Shabazz wanted to kill a corrections officer. 

Shabazz knew an opportunity to do just that would arrive every morning at the Federal Detention Center in Seatac. Before 6 a.m. each day, one lone officer had the duty of unlocking all the cells on the unit that housed Shabazz and more than 100 other inmates.

Early on January 3 of last year, Shabazz lashed out at a veteran corrections officer. Video obtained by the KING 5 Investigators shows Shabazz and another inmate waiting casually at a table as the officer moves from cell to cell unlocking doors.

When the officer is close enough, Shabazz leaps to his feet and starts beating the officer over the head with a pipe he ripped from the sink in his cell. Shabazz continues delivering full-strength blows as the officer flails on the ground.

“You can see him struggling to get away,” said corrections worker Michael Meserve, who watched the video at KING 5’s request. “He probably thought he wouldn’t walk out of this place alive.”

The attack ended only after two other inmates intervened and placed themselves between the officer and his attackers.

“Those two inmates that stopped that assault saved that officer’s life,” said Meserve, who noted the delay in response from other corrections officers. “They’re running a skeleton crew, there’s hardly any staff in the institution right now.”

KING 5’s investigation finds that federal prisons across the country face similar conditions that led to the assault at Seatac.

At many institutions there is a single officer who opens up the cells in each unit every morning, with no other officer acting as backup.

A pair of reports filed with Congress in recent months say the federal prison system isn’t keeping pace with the influx of inmates.

A January 22 report by the Congressional Research Service found that overall “the federal prison system was 39% over its rated capacity in FY2011” and that medium security male facilities are even more crowded – 55 percent over capacity.

A General Accounting Office report filed late last year made the reached the same conclusions. However, it also revealed a federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) “staffing shortage in excess of 3,200.”  Those are thousands of jobs that aren’t being filled because of federal budget cuts.

Meserve, who is vice president of union representing federal corrections workers, said the Seatac attack is one of many examples showing how dangerous conditions have become for workers in the federal prison system.

“More and more of these types of assaults are likely to occur,” said Meserve.

The Breakout

Corrections workers say the dangers they face are not always contained inside prison walls, citing a recent escape in Chicago as an example.

In December, two bank robbers escaped from the federal detention center in downtown Chicago, sparking a manhunt that put the public on edge.

The inmates climbed down the side of the high-rise prison building after they chiseled out a window in their cell.

“They braided sheets together into a rope and repelled 17 flights to the ground,” said Gary Mills, a corrections officer who works at Chicago’s Metropolitan Correctional Center.

Mills, who also serves on the Council of Prison Locals, said broken equipment and the same staffing issues present at Seatac contributed to the early morning breakout in Chicago.

“You had inoperable (surveillance) cameras (and) what we feel is an insufficient amount of staff working. It just creates a perfect storm for something to happen,” said Mills.

The Bureau of Prisons is in a difficult position. Congress has cut its budget, but the department has no authority to turn back the tide of inmates coming into its custody.

In an email to KING 5, a spokesman acknowledged that early morning shifts in many BOP facilities are staffed by only one officer.

“This level of staffing is typical for BOP institutions,” wrote Edmond Ross. “The safety and security of our staff, inmates, and the general public continues to be of the highest priority.  We remain committed to continually reviewing operations and procedures and making modifications as needed to ensure we are doing everything possible to reduce the risks associated with this inherently dangerous line of work.”

The union believes that if the morning ritual of opening cells was delayed by just 30 minutes or so, the full daytime staff could be on shift.

BOP did not respond to KING 5’s question of whether early morning staffing is under review following the Chicago breakout and the Seatac assault. A single officer continues to be responsible for opening cells at the Seatac facility.

Meanwhile, the officer who was injured at Seatac is unable to return to work.

“If the inmates are willing to conduct this kind assault tomorrow, this could absolutely happen again,” said Meserve. “And if the officer assaulted tomorrow doesn’t have inmates to intervene, they may very well lose their life.”

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