ST. LOUIS — Tony Ferranto worries as he walks his patrol at maximum-security Menard Correctional Center in Illinois.
Only 150 officers stand watch these days over more than 3,500 inmates — about 700 more than capacity. Each guard covers eight inmates when they are corralled into the cafeteria, twice as many as a few years ago. And the governor says more cuts may loom.
"I'm not trying to glorify our job. It has inherent dangers," said Ferranto, a 32-year-old married father of two. "But when you're dealing with these people under these circumstances, it's a bomb ready to go off."
States desperate to save money are cutting back on the massive expense of running prisons — eliminating guards, trimming drug treatment and parole programs and, in two states, releasing inmates early.
State officials stress they will make the cuts carefully, without jeopardizing prison security. Nevada's chief of corrections has suggested saving staff time by putting inmates under lockdown, closing visiting rooms and mothballing security towers, relying on guards patrolling prison perimeters in vehicles.
Nine states are considering closing prisons or cutting staff, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, while others are shedding inmate education programs that researchers say are critical to reducing recidivism.
Kentucky has released more than 2,800 inmates early since last year by allowing prisoners to get more credit than normal for time served. More than 150 violent felons and two dozen sex offenders were initially set free because of a loophole that has since been closed.
A court found the Kentucky early-release program failed to take into account the nature of the crimes or "financial or human costs." Prosecutors had challenged the program. The state Supreme Court will hear the case next month.
The overseer of Kentucky's penal system calls the program "very sound public policy," figuring parolees are more likely to be productive surrounded by family, working and perhaps paying child support and restitution, than in a prison yard.
And Michigan has thinned its prison population from more than 51,000 to about 47,500 through paroles and commutations and an expanded effort to keep parolees from committing new crimes.
The goal is to get the number below 45,000 and close three state prisons and five prison camps to save $120 million. Gov. Jennifer Granholm's administration says only low-risk offenders are getting early parole.
The cost of running state lockups, including paying guards, offering drug treatment and running probation and parole programs, is among the biggest drains on state budgets, making them vulnerable when states face a cash crunch.
Illinois budgeted more last year for the Department of Corrections than for anything except human services and health care. Gov. Pat Quinn, facing an overall $11 billion budget gap, has proposed cutting 1,000 corrections jobs and "downsizing" some prisons.
"I don't think there's any question that I can't make any decisions that would put anyone in jeopardy," Quinn said Tuesday. "We have to do this in a prudent manner that doesn't jeopardize anyone's safety."
Ferranto says inmates notice there are fewer guards, many of them weary from double shifts. Overcrowding at Menard has forced inmates of different races to share cells — a practice the prison prefers to avoid because of the risk of gang violence.
At the Stateville prison in Joliet, guard Ralph Portwood said some watchtowers already go unmanned because of cutbacks, and inmates are double-bunked almost throughout the prison.
"Security has taken the back seat to the budget right now," Portwood said. "I know everyone's got a job to do. But remember, security should supersede everything."
State officials insist they are not placing the public in danger.
In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to trim the inmate population by 27,000 to save $1.2 billion. He proposes keeping some offenders in county jails and assigning others, included aged and ailing inmates, to home confinement. But his administration says the measures do not amount to an early-release program.
"It's unfair to describe it that way," Schwarzenegger's prison secretary, Matthew Cate, said recently. "It's misleading. It makes it sound like we are opening the gates, and that's just not the case."
Nevada lawmakers have ordered state workers to take a day off without pay starting this month. But the state corrections chief asked for more time to figure out which of his 1,800 staffers could actually take time off without jeopardizing safety.
"We can't just ask the inmates to behave overnight and leave them alone," Corrections Director Howard Skolnik said.
Other states are cutting back on programs aimed at keeping inmates out of jail once they're released.
In Hutchinson, Kan., a 1,700-inmate prison shed staff for sex-offender treatment, closed a dormitory that once housed at least 60 inmates with drug and alcohol addictions, and ended vocational welding and GED programs.
Associated Press reporters Deanna Bellandi in Chicago and Don Thompson in Sacramento, Calif., contributed to this story.
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