Our country relies on having a functional criminal justice system in place. We expect that people who have committed serious crimes will pay their just debt to society. We also expect that as inmates those individuals will be kept healthy and safe by corrections employees who perform a wide range of duties, including counseling, mentoring, training and teaching.
You would expect President Donald Trump, who came into office this year talking “tough on crime,” to be supportive of our prison system. In January, he became the first president since Bill Clinton to mention criminal justice reform in his inaugural address. You certainly wouldn’t expect the same person who pledged to address the rising specter of “American carnage” and lamented “the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential” to propose a budget that will result in fewer resources for prisons — yet that’s exactly what’s happening.
President Trump was elected in large part because he promised to represent the interests of working people. But along with anti-worker politicians in Congress and Annapolis, he has been rigging the system even more in favor of big corporations and against working people like the ones who keep us safe.
I work for a union that represents thousands of corrections officers, forensic officers and other corrections staff across the country. I have heard from our membership about how everyone suffers as a result of the understaffing, overcrowding and lack of access to critical programs for inmates. Draconian state budget cuts have already resulted in prisons that hold more inmates than they were originally designed for. Here in Maryland understaffing has been a problem at the Dorsey Run Correctional Facility in Jessup. Combined with inadequate training and safety standards, the current conditions put corrections officers in danger and create a volatile environment which impacts security and safety for inmates and prison staff alike.
Now, rather than putting our money where his mouth was in January, President Trump has introduced a federal budget proposal that threatens to throw our corrections system into further crisis. He intends to slash hundreds of millions in federal funding for mental health care and substance abuse treatment, resulting in thousands of additional people going into our prison system who simply don’t belong there. Add in the Trump budget’s deep federal cuts to state funding that will reverberate across all programs including corrections, and you have a situation that will send an already stressed prison system over the brink.
This is especially unfair to corrections officers, who are already at a high risk of suffering work-related injuries and even death due to assaults resulting from confrontations with inmates. Corrections officers suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder at more than double the rate of military veterans. President Trump’s budget suggests that he thinks these same workers should now be serving as the front line of our efforts against mental health and substance abuse, in addition to all their regular duties.
The environment President Trump is on the verge of creating is simply unacceptable. His misguided policies ignore reality and shun the humane aspects of corrections. We cannot sit by and allow our prisons to be turned into de facto mental hospitals. Nor can we continue to allow an environment where corrections employees are subjected to further substandard working conditions.
If our country is truly serious about criminal justice reform, our only option is to support a well-funded corrections system that includes adequate training, tools and staffing for corrections employees, access to humane mental health services and reintegration programs for inmates. This is the only option that would go a long way toward reducing prison populations. It is the only option that acknowledges the needs of people with mental illness in a way that makes our communities safer. And it’s the only option that acknowledges the value of prison employees and makes our prisons and jails safer places to live and work.
Heather Conroy is executive vice president of Service Employees International Union; Twitter: @HeatherConroy1.