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Exclusive: U.S. Attorney General, citing safety, halts furlough of federal prison guards
Updated On: Mar 23, 2013

The layoffs are off.

Federal correctional officers and other staff of the federal Bureau of Prisons will avoid the mass furloughs looming for other government employees under automatic federal budget cuts, according to a Justice Department memo obtained late Friday by The Citizens’ Voice.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, in the memo, notified Justice Department employees that he transferred $150 million of department funds to the Bureau of Prisons this week to maintain current staffing at its facilities through the end of the fiscal year in September.

The move came just weeks after an inmate murdered Correctional Officer Eric Williams at the high-security United States Penitentiary, Canaan, in Wayne County. Since the Feb. 25 attack, Williams’ colleagues and union officials have warned that the already unsafe working conditions at federal prisons would deteriorate further if furloughs were implemented.

READ: A.G. Holder’s memo on halting of furloughs

WATCH: Funeral of murdered C.O. Eric Williams

The forced federal budget cuts, known as sequestration, would have reduced allocations for the Bureau of Prisons by 5 percent, or $339 million, including $330 million for salaries, according to the White House Office of Management and Budget.

If planned staffing cuts had taken effect, the bureau would have had to furlough 3,570 employees each day, Holder said. At Canaan, union officials said, 30 workers would have been forced to take an unpaid day off each day.

“The loss of these correctional officers and other staff who supervise the 176,000 prisoners at 119 institutions would have created serious threats to the lives and safety of our staff, inmates, and the public,” Holder wrote in the memo Friday, which he addressed to all Justice Department employees.

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, who attended Williams’ wake and supported the expansion of a program arming correctional officers with pepper spray, lobbied his colleagues this week to issue the resolution that allowed Holder to maintain Bureau of Prisons funding.

In a statement released to The Citizens’ Voice at 1:20 a.m. Saturday, Casey said:

"I urged Congress to provide additional resources to the Department of Justice in order to avoid the furloughs of correctional officers. I'm pleased that the DOJ and Congress have worked together on a plan that will stop the furlough of federal corrections officers for the remainder of the fiscal year. This is a step in the right direction, but much more needs to be done moving forward to continue to provide our federal prisons with adequate staffing.”

Under the furlough plan, correctional officers would have been forced to take 14 unpaid days off between April 21 — the day the bureau’s cuts were to take effect — and the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. That would have meant an unpaid day off about every two weeks.

Holder, the nation’s top law enforcement officer, delivered a eulogy at Williams’ funeral March 2. He vowed the 34-year-old Nanticoke native’s death would not be in vain.

“This is our promise to you. This is my pledge to you,” Holder told mourners at St. Faustina Kowalska Church in Nanticoke. "And it will be our enduring tribute to the memory of Officer Eric Williams. His loss will not be in vain.”

Williams was working alone in a cellblock of more than 100 hardened criminals at the time he was attacked — a normal ratio for federal prisons across the country, local and national union officials have said.

Staff cuts would have placed correctional officers in further danger, they said.

The funding infusion to maintain current staffing levels and avoid furloughs was a one-time stop gap measure, Holder noted in his memo Friday.

“The Department's actions can protect BOP's facilities only through the end of the fiscal year in September and these actions do not address the serious life and safety issues that the BOP faces next year under continued funding at the post-sequestration levels. Further, none of the Department's actions can mitigate every harm faced by BOP,” Holder wrote.

Bureau of Prisons employees were the only Justice Department workers spared from furloughs,the attorney general lamented in the memo.

“I recognize that other components of the Department perform critical life and safety, national security, and criminal justice services on behalf of the public. I am deeply troubled by the impact the sequester will have on the Department's capacity to prevent terrorism, combat violent crime, partner with state and local law enforcement agencies, and protect the judiciary and our most vulnerable citizens,” Holder wrote. “I am also troubled by the damaging impact of these cuts and resultant furloughs on you, our Justice workforce. I am still evaluating whether we have the ability to avoid other furloughs in the Department this year. “

Federal correctional employees around the nation have protested the sequestration budget cuts in recent days and a similar rally, spearheaded by U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Moosic, was planned for Wednesday at Pittston Area High School in Pittston.

Cartwright said he met many Canaan correctional officers in the spring of 2012, during the early stages of his run for Congress. They were already overworked then, he said.

"They were stressed,” Cartwright said. “These were people who were losing sleep at the night from the stress. It's endemic of the type of people who are being asked to sacrifice from the sequester - programs already stretched to the max.”

Officials with the federal correctional officers’ union could not be reached Friday night.

Since Williams’ death, The Citizens’ Voice has published a series of stories under the banner of “Crisis at Canaan” to shed light on the job correctional officers perform and the dangerous nature of life behind prison walls.

Darrell Palmer, the president of the union representing correctional officers at Canaan, recently described the conditions correctional officers face:

"Imagine what it would be like if you came to work and they put you in this cell block with 130 criminals and they gave you a set of keys and a radio and said, 'Run it.' And there’s murderers, drug dealers, rapists and even terrorists. And you're going to deal with them for eight hours, five days a week. People in the public don't realize what it's like.”

Since Williams death, the Bureau of Prisons has expanded a pilot program to allow correctional officers to carry pepper spray for protection on the job. All federal penitentiaries like Canaan are now included in the program, and staff at Canaan are in the process of completing pepper spray training.

Still, that’s not enough, union officials said.

Funding should include money for two guards per housing unit, particularly between 2 p.m. and the final lock down at 10 p.m., they said. Two guards per housing unit was the norm until 2005, when the BOP mandated one guard person cellblock due to staffing cuts.

Williams, who was working alone and only equipped with handcuffs and a radio with a panic button, was blindsided and repeatedly stabbed during lockdown on Feb. 25 by an inmate armed with a crude, knife-like weapon known as a “shank.”

The inmate, identified in court documents as Jessie Con-ui, 34, is a sworn member of the notorious prison gang, the New Mexican Mafia, who has a murder conviction on his rap sheet, but was serving time in federal prison for a drug-trafficking ring. He was scheduled to be returned to Arizona in September to serve life in prison for executing a gang rival in 2002.

One correctional officer, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the attack with the media, said only a second guard could have helped stop Williams’ attacker.

“Pepper spray wouldn’t have saved Eric Williams. A gun wouldn’t have saved him,” the correctional officer said. “What happened was so fast. The only thing I think would have been another staff member. Without someone there pressing that (panic) button, all that stuff is ineffective.”

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