In a letter sent earlier this month, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder made an argument you don't hear much from the Obama administration: automatic cuts to the Bureau of Prisons budget would be bad news for towns and private companies that rely on prisons for income.
In addition to reducing man power at prisons and reentry programs for prisoners, Holder warned Senate Democrats that sequestration would slow the "activation" of new prisons and prisons that are nearing completion. In turn, "communities surrounding the prisons would not benefit from the significant economic activity that a prison engenders. We estimate that sequestration will mean over 3,800 fewer jobs related to [new prison] activations that would be foregone, (including an estimated 1,500 private sector jobs)."
There's simply no other way to spin this: At a time when the U.S. has the highest prison population on the planet and a federal prison population that is a) roughly half drug offenders and b) expected to continue growing for the next decade, the Obama administration is extolling the benefits of "activating" more prisons.
Yesterday, in response to Holder's promise of furloughs, the head of a federal prison union in Wisconsin asked why prisoners couldn't just take the full brunt of sequestration all on their own.
"We can cut back on education; we can cut back on recreations; we can cut back on visitations," Oxford Federal Correction Intitute union president Dave Dauman told WMTV in Madison, Wisconsin. "Why are the staff paying the price? Why aren't the inmates suffering more?" (For more insight on the contempt prison unions have for the people in their care, read Mother Jones' recent piece, Big Labor's Lock 'Em Up Mentality.)
Another member of the union said that assaults on staff are already a concern, and furloughs would increase the chances of a violent conflict:
"For the last seven years we've been working at bare minimum staffing, skeleton crews, and now with sequestration we're looking at even deeper cuts. It's not going to be safe," said Oxford FCI's union vice president, James Salzwedel.
Salzwedel says sequestration would mean cuts of about 21 staff members to an already short staff for their nearly 1,300 inmates.
The Bureau of Prison's budget stands to lose $338 million, and staff members have already been told they'll be furloughed without pay for 14 days this year.
"Direct results are assaults on staff," said Salzwedel.
While the Oxford FCI union members and Holder aren't necessarily singing the same song--the union sees a choice between furloughing prison staff or reducing services like vocational training, visits from family, recreation, and re-entry programs, while Holder is claiming that both are going to happen--the two parties clearly agree that the solution of prison over-crowding is more prisons and more guards, not fewer prisoners.
"Politicians may want to brag about job creation, but it shouldn't be in this area," reads a statement from Families Against Mandatory Minimum.
"The solution here isn't a bigger prison budget, but a smaller prison population. And for that, we need sentencing reform. Mandatory minimum sentences have stuffed the Bureau of Prisons with nearly 40 percent too many prisoners. If we got rid of mandatory minimum sentences, we'd see the prison population (and federal prison budget) shrink. Avoiding sequestration does nothing to solve the real problem: Too many federal prisoners serving too many mandatory minimum sentences."