Go inside a federal prison with Mike Causey

Wednesday - 8/25/2010, 11:00am EDT

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The following is an encore presentation of Your Turn. This show originally aired July 27, 2010.

Did you know that every day, thousands of your fellow federal workers go to prison?

We thought you'd like to know what goes on in federal prisons, what really happens, and what needs to happen from the viewpoint of been-there-done-that feds who know.

Bryan Lowry is president of the American Federation of Government Employees Council of Prison Locals.

The AFL-CIO union represents most non-supervisory Bureau of Prisons personnel at the federal lockups.

He says many members of the public have the misconception that federal prisons only contain white collar criminals who are non-violent offenders, but that is far from accurate.

"A lot of violent crimes -- probably over the last 10 or 15 years -- have been change by law from a state crime to a federal crime, which means that we have more violent, more predatory, more aggressive, [and] more gun-related type crimes. Now these inmates do federal sentencing instead of state. It's taken our system to a younger more aggressive population."

With that, he explains, comes more gang-oriented activities. He says there are a lot of reasons why prisoners join gangs, including protection and access to contraband items.

"Prisons are like their own communities. The public really doesn't have a general understanding of what really goes on, but it's a society within itself [and] there are so many different things . . . That staff has to do -- from staff who council inmates [and] work on sentence computation. You have education programs. You have a hospital inside of the prison. You have maintenance features."

On top of all of this, he says, America's prisons are very violent places. Employees of the prison system face attacks with makeshift weapons, the potential for riots and other types of assault. Lowry says, according to some recent IG reports, the number of these attacks have risen about 15 percent just over the past five years.

"These are very aggressive places, and not only do the inmates live on edge, but it also affects the well-being and the psyche of staff. The federal prison makeup is a little different than most of your state makeup. [In most state prisons] the security force and the responders are generally considered to be correctional officers. All the other staff in state facilities are considered to be support staff, and if something major happens . . . They get the support staff out of there. . . . In the federal system, all of our staff are considered law enforcement officers, and they're all responsible and obligated to respond to any incident."

There are a total of 33 federal prisons in the United States (and one in Puerto Rico), and Lowry says almost every staff member has to deal with some type of incident almost every day, no matter how large or small.

The AFGE tracks attacks and incidents involving its members in the prison system through the national office, but Lowry says locals are responsible for reporting such information, as well.

"This year alone, in 2010, we have had approximately 104 staff assaulted by inmates without weapons, and about 24 staff assaulted by inmates with weapons. We've also had 15 inmate homicides inside of our prisons this year alone. . . . I believe our inmate homicide rate is accurate, but I also believe that our numbers on assaults on staff are actually lower than what the real numbers would actually say."

Despite the threat of danger, thousands of people are employed by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Lowry says they are considered LEOs for the purposes of retirement benefits.

"[We have a] 20 year retirement based on age of 50, or 25 years before 50, and a mandatory out at 57 years old, unless you're considered to be non-law enforcement -- and that may be that you hired onto the Bureau and you work at a location outside of an institution."

Lowry says one of the main things he wants the public to remember is that working in any prison is a very difficult job.

"Prisons can turn [violent] very quickly and the violence can escalate at any second, once something occurs. . . . Inmates can make a weapon even out of the simplest things, such as toothbrushes."

To hear the entire, hour-long interview with Lowry, click on the audio link at the top of the page.