Prison union may OK staff searches before work

FEDERAL WORKERS

July 14, 2006|By MELISSA HARRIS

The federal Bureau of Prisons is negotiating with its union to begin searching corrections officers when they arrive for work as a way of reducing the flow of drugs and weapons into the facilities, union President Bryan Lowry said.

The announcement comes after a fatal shootout last month at a federal prison in Tallahassee, Fla., involving a guard who drew his personal handgun when federal agents arrived to arrest him and four other officers accused of smuggling drugs and money to inmates in exchange for sex. The guard, Ralph Hill, and Department of Justice agent William "Buddy" Sentner, 44, were killed.

"We considered the issue of searching staff for many years but believed such procedures were not necessary and could undermine our staff morale," said Bureau of Prisons spokesman Mike Truman. "However, the small percentage of officers who continue to bring contraband into federal prisons have made it impossible for us to continue" that belief.

Lowry, who leads the Council of Prison locals for the American Federation of Government Employees, said that mandatory searches of property and employees were about to go in effect at the Tallahassee facility and that the agency and union were in talks to make those changes nationwide.

Charles B. Craver, a law professor at George Washington University, said that was a wise approach.

If they were to resist, "the union would look very bad," he said. "It's like professional sports unions opposing drug testing. ... The unions would be better off negotiating over how and when these changes are made and, most importantly, the punishments for violations. You want to fight to avoid automatic terminations" in cases where a violation was inadvertent, he said. An example might be a guard who forgot to leave behind an otherwise legal personal handgun.

Dating to at least 2002, reports from the Justice Department's inspector generals office have called for random drug testing of corrections officers; greater use of a technology called ion spectrometry, which can detect microscopic traces of illegal drugs on clothing, people and objects; restrictions on the amount and type of personal property corrections officers can bring with them to work; and mandatory pat-down searches of officers.

"Wardens and intelligence officers stated that unless they have irrefutable evidence an employee possesses drugs, they fear charges of harassment or discrimination for searching staff," according to a January 2003 inspector general's report.

More than half of all federal prisons, however, now have ion spectrometry machines, Truman said.

Although opposed to many of the recommendations outlined in the 2003 drug report, former Bureau of Prisons Director Kathleen Hawk Sawyer stated in a 2005 report on staff sexual abuse that it "was the biggest problem she faced as director." The report cited 163 sexual abuse cases from fiscal 2000 to 2004; 88 of those were not prosecuted.

"This often occurs because there is no physical evidence to corroborate inmates' allegations," the report found. Even when individuals were found guilty, however, the report found that in those 65 cases, 48 offenders were given probation.

Storm damage

Most employees at Internal Revenue Service headquarters in Washington likely will not be able to return to their offices until next year, according to a General Services Administration review of damages from the recent storms.

The rains damaged or destroyed the building's electrical, heating and air-conditioning systems in a sub-basement that was submerged in 20 feet of water. The basement one floor above was flooded with 5 feet of water, destroying the fitness center and cafeteria.

Headquarters' 2,400 employees have been assigned to 12 other buildings, temporary space, or are working from home or telecommuting centers, the IRS said.

A phased-in return of employees to 1111 Constitution Ave. N.W. could begin as early as this fall. Damage estimates are not available, but they are expected to be in the tens of millions of dollars.

The writer welcomes your comments and feedback. She can be reached at melissa.harris@ baltsun.com or 410-715-2885. Back issues can be read at baltimoresun.com/federal.

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