Staffing Woes and Increased Risks at Supermax

August 2007

The Denver Post reports today that staffing problems (background here) at the U.S. Supermax prison in Florence have gotten worse.

The country's most secure prison, 40 miles west of Pueblo in Florence, is staffed at only 75 percent, a "dangerously low level," according to the union....Supermax, which houses the likes of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski and al-Qaeda conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, has 180 correctional officers to cover 230 shifts, according to a union count. ....Since January, the prison has lost 20 correctional officers, although 10 new ones are being hired.

In practical terms, the Post reports:

Guards at the ultra-high-security prison are stretched so thin that the unit housing terrorists has gone without adequate attention for up to 24 hours, said Mike Schnobrich, legislative liaison for the local prison union, part of the American Federation of Government Employees. That means guards are not bringing inmates toilet paper or toothbrushes or taking them out of their cells for the required one hour per day, he said. The inmates still get meals, though sometimes not on time, and other guards check on them. "The tension between the inmates and staff is at an all-time high," McFadyen said. Threats of assault have increased at Supermax, the union said.

Last year, a federal arbitrator ordered the Bureau of prisons to take action to "lower the inherent hazards" at Supermax. Amid great publicity, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Senators Ken Salazar and Wayne Allard toured the prison. What have Senators Salazar and Allard done in the past year to follow through?

Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., said he was told by the Bureau of Prisons that the guard-to-inmate ratio was improving. "I would be gravely concerned" if the union numbers are accurate, he said.

Did either Senator check with the prison guards' union to get their take on whether things were improving? Did they not receive any communications from Mike Schnobrich, the union's legislative liaison in the past year? I don't know the answer, but I hope the Senators' involvement didn't end with their photo-op tour of the prison. Supermax prisons are inherently risky for prison guards. In many cases, they are dealing with inmates serving life sentences, who, given their extreme isolation, aren't inclined towards good behavior. Adequate staffing is essential to protect the guards as well as to ensure the inmates are being properly treated. Both of our Senators need to swiftly address this problem. Alberto Gonzales sure doesn't care any more.

Tags: