October 05, 2004 08:00 AM

Budget and staff cuts will make it difficult to protect Martha Stewart once she enters prison later this week, says a union that represents correctional officers at the Alderson Federal Prison Camp in southeastern West Virginia.

“She’s a high-profile inmate, and we are not going to guarantee we can keep an eye on her 24-7,” says Phil Glover, national president of the Council of Prison Locals, who termed the staffing shortage a system-wide problem.

Stewart, 63, has until 2 p.m. Friday to report to the minimum security U.S. prison to begin serving her five-month sentence for lying to federal investigators about a stock sale.

Kent Gilkerson, a correctional officer at Alderson who leads the union there, tells the Associated Press that employee levels at the lockup have plummeted from 60 officers four years ago to 35 on hand today.

All told, the prison houses about 1,000 inmates, with one officer forced to watch as many as 550 inmates at a time, said Gilkerson, who blames federal budget cuts. As a result, he alleged, inmates are left unattended.

As for how this could affect Stewart: “We end up pulling these people to work security, make sure housing units have shakedowns daily and make sure they (inmates) live in a decent environment,” Glover said. “Some things get left by the wayside. It’s like a domino effect.”

Since last week when officials confirmed Stewart was destined for Alderson, a corrections officer has been stationed at the entrance to turn back reporters and the curious.

Meanwhile Stewart has been spending her last days of freedom vacationing in the Bahamas, where she attended her longtime publicist’s wedding.

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