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  • Nina Gulbransen

Tough on Crime Politics Made America the Home of the Incarcerated…Now there Isn’t Enough Staff to Care for the Imprisoned

Image by Prison Journalism Project 

A May 2024 report released by the U.S. Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General described an Oregon federal prisoner’s shocking moment of desperation, in which he found the most viable solution to prison medical staff ignoring his pleas to address a severely infected ingrown hair: fake an attempt at suicide. It worked, and he was hospitalized for five days after the faked attempt to treat the infection.

The inmate’s story of desperation is a microcosm of the dire need to address staffing shortages plaguing federal prisons, which are overflowing partially as a result of “tough on crime” politics and their subsequent policy implementations.

On February 28, 2024, Bureau of Prisons (BOP) director Colette Peters addressed the Senate in a Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing, stating that stories similar to the experience of the Oregon inmate are a result of issues in recruiting and retaining employees in federal prisons. These staffing shortages have recently come under fire after the Justice Department’s inspector general found that they resulted in unsafe housing and food storage conditions and caused issues in providing proper medical and mental health care to inmates in federal prisons across the nation.

On an unannounced visit to a Tallahassee, Florida prison the watchdog found unsafe conditions that included insect infestations in food supplies, food covered with rodent waste, and leaks from windows and ceilings, and overall infrastructural disrepair. Another visit to a female federal prison in Waseca, Minnesota found similar conditions that included a leaky roof, a heavy reliance on overtime for correctional officers, and an outdated security camera system that all contributed to inadequate care for the safety and health of the prison inmates. Staffing shortages have been identified as one of the root causes for the prevalence of these conditions, as lacking numbers of correctional officers have forced critical prison operations to stall.

At the prison in Sheridan, Oregon, where the inmate saw faking an attempt on his life as the most viable path to receiving medical care, only 81% of correctional services positions were filled, and only 67% positions in the prison’s Health Services Department were filled. These numbers illustrate a reality in which inmates of American federal prisons are being denied adequate medical care, as inmates are required to be escorted to medical facilities outside prisons by correctional officers. Therefore, if there is a shortage of correctional officers, many just do not receive their necessary care. Inside the prison, deficient medical staff numbers means incarcerated patients often do not get X-rays or lab tests done on time, increasing the possibility that these inmates’ medical issues go undiagnosed and therefore untreated. Another troubling report released in 2024 by the Inspector General found significant shortcomings” in the emergency responses for almost half of inmate deaths reviewed by the watchdog. Such shortcomings included “a lack of urgency in responding, failure to bring or use appropriate emergency equipment, unclear radio communications, and issues with naloxone administration in opioid overdose cases,” indicating the presence of a significant threat to the health of the incarcerated population. These threats are all linked to inadequate staffing of correctional officers, something that band-aid fixes like recruitment incentives cannot fully address.

Senator Corey Booker (D-NJ) sympathized with the struggles Peters described as causing the shortages, the main of which being low base salary pay, stating, But I’ve watched you now as a professional struggle mightily to meet the demands that are put on you in a moment where Congress is not giving you the resources necessary to do your job, yet another potentially critical factor in causing these shortages was not brought up in the February Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing: the trend of mass incarceration.

These issues are not new. As put by the Justice Department’s inspector general Michael Horowitz, It’s a problem twenty years in the making.  And, it’s a problem only made worse by the mass incarceration driven by “tough on crime” policies. As highlighted by the Sentencing Project, in 1972, the U.S. had an imprisonment rate of 93 per 100,000 people. By 2009, that number had increased sevenfold. Even more shocking, between 1990 and 1995, all states except Maine significantly increased their prison populations, with states like Texas increasing said populations by 130%. This period also saw the federal system grow by 53% during this same period, indicating a massive growth in the number of inmates needing care in federal prisons across the country, a need that is not currently being met.

In the 1970’s, President Nixon led the charge towards this exponential growth of incarcerated populations by touting his planned war on drugs”, which would go on to disproportionately damage minority populations chances at upward mobility. His administration saw the prison population practically double from 329,000 when he entered office in 1980 to 627,000 in 1988. These increases disproportionately targeted Americans of color: Two-thirds of the individuals in prison for drug offenses are people of color, and during Nixon’s administration, half of the BOP population was incarcerated for drug-related offenses. The numbers illustrate a tale of continued unequal impact, as in 2023, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that 75.5% of Americans were white and 13.6% were Black or African-American, while federal prisons were made up of 38.7% Black inmates. As such, those who face the impacts of staffing shortages in federal prisons as described above are disproportionately persons of color. 

Staffing shortages not only threaten the safety and health of inmates held in federal prisons, but also undermine the very purpose of these institutions: rehabilitation. Nonviolent offenders put in federal prison during the wars on drugs and crime were certainly not meant to be kept behind bars forever, yet shortages in staffing trickle down from threatening the medical care necessary to simply keep prison populations alive and well to threatening the futures of the incarcerated post-prison. In Sheridan, drug rehabilitation programs were not administered due to shortages, and mental health and trauma programs are plagued by long waiting lists. Health care workers, education workers, and facilities management workers are often pulled to work as guards, meaning that those put in place to improve the outcomes of these inmates after their release are unable to fulfill their purpose.

Tough on crime politics has established the land of the free as the land of the most incarcerated persons in the world, a reality that has exacerbated the issue of staffing shortages. Currently, BOP Director Peters believes that increasing the base salary for corrections officers will be a step towards solving these staffing issues, but an issue described as being decades in the making might need a more innovative solution. Other avenues like increasing funding for education, investment into low-income communities plagued by crime, and a focus on rehabilitation over punishment could lower the actual numbers of those incarcerated, lessening the strain put on an oversized imprisoned population. 

댓글 1개

Louis Elisa
Louis Elisa
7월 02일

Your article on the prison population s in correct.

It was Regan NOT Nixon who in 1980 began the racist "war on drugs" and who at the same time help promote the importation ,wide spread sale and distribution of cocaine. Regain a coke user himself encouraged private prison businesses contractors and made sure they stayed in business

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