Staffing levels blamed for violence at prison

"It will have this stigma on it forever, that we lost an officer there," said Dale Deshotel, national president for the American Federation of Government Employees' Council of Prison Locals.

Since September 2012, the union was informed of 21 altercations at the prison, which were mostly inmates fighting among themselves.

Seven incidents, however, reportedly involved inmates getting their hands on a weapon, sometimes secretly making their own homemade knife by sharpening an object, and thrusting it into another inmate or a corrections officer.

On Feb. 25, a Canaan inmate used a homemade knife, commonly referred to as a "shank" in prison circles, to kill Eric Williams, a 34-year-old corrections officer from Nanticoke.

It was the first fatal attack on a federal corrections officer in nearly five years, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

The FBI is still investigating. No new details, including the inmate's name, have been released.

Law enforcement and prison officials have refused to answer questions about the circumstances surrounding the stabbing and have only released short statements confirming it happened.

Meanwhile, union officials point to unsafe staffing levels at Canaan, as well as at the other 116 penitentiaries under the management of the BOP, as a reason behind the violent altercations.

And they worry with the federal budget sequestration will result in prison staff furloughs and possibly more violence behind bars.

"It's all about the money," said Darrell Palmer, local union president at Canaan. "It's all about the (federal) budget. If we can get the budget where we need to be at and make it right, we'd have a lot better staffing in these federal prisons."

When Williams was killed, he was working alone on a cell block holding about 130 inmates, Deshotel said. Among his duties, which can include searching cells and patting down inmates to look for contraband, Williams was also charged with making sure all of the inmates head inside their cell for the overnight lockup, Deshotel said.

He was preparing to lock them into their cells when he was attacked, union officials said. He was equipped with only a radio, keys and handcuffs when he was beaten and stabbed repeatedly with the homemade knife by the unidentified inmate.

At Canaan, it is the norm to have one corrections officer assigned to individual cell blocks, also known as housing units, which usually contain 130 or so inmates, Palmer said.

That is also the norm throughout the federal prison system, though the size of housing units and the number of inmates in each housing unit vary, Deshotel said.

In 2005 in a cost-saving measure, the Bureau of Prisons decided to assign only one corrections officer to a cell block, Deshotel said. Before that, there were two corrections officers in charge of a cell block.

"That's why Eric was by himself," Deshotel said. "I believe if there were two officers in that unit, he could have had a fighting chance. I believe it would have saved his life too.

"When there's two people to go through, it is a deterrent," he added. "When there is only one, it's easier for (inmates) to make up their minds, they think they can take one person on."

As of last week, there were 1,351 inmates housed at Canaan's high-security facility, according to BOP figures. The prison also has a minimum security camp, holding 134 inmates, BOP figures stated.

The prison has about 390 people on staff, which includes corrections officers, management and administrative personnel, Palmer said.

On weekends, there are only about 40 workers at the prison to handle the affairs and the security of the prison, Palmer said.

Efforts to reach prison Warden David Ebbert and a spokeswoman at Canaan Wednesday were unsuccessful.

Palmer cautioned that he does not blame the warden for the staff levels nor prison management.

"The warden's hands are tied to a certain point here," Palmer said. "What he's given, that's what he has to work with. They are given a budget and they have to do the best they can with that budget."

However, not everyone agrees that staffing ratios such as this one are key to keeping prisons safer.

Harry R. Dammer, Ph.D., a professor and chairman of the University of Scranton sociology and criminal justice department, said it is best not to rush to conclusions about the relation between staffing levels and violence among inmates in prisons, including at Canaan in light of the stabbing death of Williams.

"There is no formula for how many men (inmates) should be supervised by how many men (corrections officers) at what time of day and what type of prison," Dammer said. "Numbers don't tell the whole story. We have to learn more ... before we rush to judgment.

"If inmates want to take over the prison on any one day, they can," he said. "If they want to kill a corrections officer on any one day, they can."

Still, prison union officials are concerned that corrections officers remain at risk and worry about the impact more federal budget cuts will have on their safety.

If the federal sequestration, which will result in $85 billion in cuts to spending across many federal defense and non-defense programs through September, is implemented, the BOP will have to reduce its spending by more than $338 million.

This will include furloughing prison workers, restricting overtime and freezing staff levels, according to union officials and a U.S. Department of Justice memo obtained by the Times-Tribune.

By phone Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, who met with prison union officials last year and this year, acknowledged there has been funding and staff issues at the federal prisons.

"This has been a problem for several years now, and I am continuing to strongly advocate for funding for the bureau so they can not only avoid layoffs, but alleviate the dangerous situation they face. ... We can't just pat them on the back and say good job. We've got to help them."

Casey was instrumental in helping Canaan corrections officers get armed with pepper spray.

BOP spokeswoman Traci Billingsley said one corrections officer assigned to one housing unit "is typical staffing and it has been for so many years. We do not anticipate changing the number of officers per unit as budgets don't allow for richer staffing patterns."

She could not comment on the violent incident reports at the Canaan prison. The BOP does not provide the union with the information.

The BOP used to provide reports to the union, but stopped doing so, Deshotel said. So now, the union gathers the information from local union leaders, he said.

At Canaan, besides the fatal stabbing of Williams, other incidents over the past six months included:

four in January, including an inmate killed by another inmate in a fight in which they had weapons.

one in December, in which a prison staff member was injured after an inmate attacked him with a homemade shank.

four in October, including an inmate-on-inmate fight that involved weapons.

10 in September, including two separate inmate on inmate fights involving weapons, both of which resulted in inmates being hospitalized for injuries.

one in November where two inmates were fighting in a housing unit.

"Today, we are in the same position we were in," said Deshotel. "We need this funding, and we need these staffing levels to come back up so that we reduce the level of danger on all of them."

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