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Federal prison guard arrests increase dramatically, report finds

Such arrests have risen 90% over the last decade, according to findings by the Justice Department's inspector general.

September 29, 2011|By Alexa Vaughn, Washington Bureau
  • Guards walk along the fence at the federal prison in Florence, Colo. Misconduct investigations at such prisons have doubled in the last decade, a federal report finds.
Guards walk along the fence at the federal prison in Florence, Colo. Misconduct… (Bob Daemmrich / AFP-Getty…)

Reporting from Washington — Arrests of federal prison guards soared nearly 90% over the last decade, possibly because of poor hiring practices during a 25% increase in prison growth, the Justice Department's inspector general reported.

Misconduct investigations doubled, and more than half of the offenses were committed during the officers' first two years on the job. The inspector general recommended that the Federal Bureau of Prisons improve its background investigation of job applicants and find better ways to assess rookie officers.

But other factors have contributed to the problem, including private prisons and increasing numbers of female prisoners and young offenders in federal facilities, the inspector general found.

The report did not specify how many misconduct cases came out of private federal prisons, which have increased their populations by 120% in the last decade, according to the Justice Policy Institute, a Washington prison issues think tank.

"Private prisons aren't always held to the same standards as public ones," said Joe Baumann, a corrections officer at the state California Rehabilitation Center in Norco. "That's where so much of the stuff I come across is from, the private contractors."

But within public and private systems, some guards think their actions have no consequences because the process for punishing them is so convoluted, said Barry Krisberg, a law professor at the Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice.

"Screenings are a good start, but what we need is far better training in terms of what the expectations of the jobs are, better supervision to identify potential problems and ways to deal with complaints about their behavior," Krisberg said.

Changing prison demographics could be responsible for the rise in inappropriate behavior, said Robert Perkinson, author of a book about Texas prisons. As the number of female prisoners grows, so does the rate of sexual harassment between officers and prisoners. And federal prisoners are getting younger, creating a more unruly prison population, Perkinson said.

"In federal prisons, it used to just be drug kingpins, tax-fraud prisoners, assassins," Perkinson said. "But now it's become full of more low-level offenders, which ironically makes for more violent prisoners. A middle-aged kingpin is a relatively calm, responsible guy, whereas an 18-year-old who was selling meth out in Nebraska is going to be a lot more impulsive."

Baumann, a 27-year veteran and the prison's top union official, said extended training and better pay made a huge difference. In 1998, California doubled its training from eight to 16 weeks and pay went up about the same time.

"The caliber of person just went up. More people had degrees, previous employment or previous careers when the pay scale went up. We started getting a lot more people from private enterprise," Baumann said. "Prior to that, we got a lot of people who worked fast food, manual labor jobs."

A spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons had no comment on the report.

alexa.vaughn@latimes.com

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