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Tensions rise in federal prisons during shutdown as weary guards go without pay and work double shifts

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 1/11/2019 Kimberly Kindy

Brian Shoemaker stands in front of the Lee Penitentiary in Pennington Gap, Va. © Shawn Poynter for The Washington Post/ Brian Shoemaker stands in front of the Lee Penitentiary in Pennington Gap, Va.

Prison guard Brian Shoemaker was patrolling the halls of Lee penitentiary in southwestern Virginia on Friday when an inmate tried to squeeze past him into a restricted area. Seconds after Shoemaker told the prisoner to turn around, the inmate lunged at him, punching him in the shoulder.

Shoemaker did not sustain a major injury. But it did not escape him that he is working without a paycheck at one of the most dangerous federal jobs in America during the partial government shutdown. Fears for his and other prison staff members’ safety are escalating as 16-hour shifts become routine and a growing number of guards call in sick in protest or to work side jobs to pay their bills.

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“I don’t think we should be subjected to that kind of thing and not receive a paycheck,” said Shoemaker, 48, a 17-year veteran of Lee penitentiary. “I’m walking in here and doing my job every day, and it’s very dangerous.”

Shoemaker is one of 36,000 federal prison workers deemed “essential employees” by the U.S. government, which means he is expected to report for work during the shutdown even though he will not get paid until after the government reopens.

Even though these employees are supposed to work, union officials at 10 prisons reached by The Washington Post, including Lee, say the number of employees who are not showing up for work has at least doubled since the shutdown began.

As a result, those showing up are routinely working double shifts, correctional officers and other prison staff members say. Secretaries, janitors and teachers are filling in for absent officers. At at least one prison — Hazelton Federal Correctional Complex in West Virginia — the number of assaults on officers has increased since the shutdown, according to a union official there.

“There has been a rise in people calling in sick and taking leave during the shutdown,” said Richard Heldreth, the local union president at the Hazelton prison. “The staff who are showing up are dealing with this violence, long hours and extra overtime with the uncertainly of when we will be compensated.”

There are numerous reasons that correctional officers — commonly called prison guards — are unique among federal employees. They are in the rare position of risking injuries, even their lives, every time they report to work. Prison staff members also are among the lowest paid of those working in federal law enforcement, with average annual salaries of between $40,000 to $50,000.

Many work in remote rural towns where there is no mass transit and commutes are often an hour or more each way. The prisons are frequently the lifeblood of these rural towns.

Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), whose district includes a federal prison in Lisbon, said the safety conditions of the prisons were already tenuous due to staffing shortages, but the dangers have spiked since the shutdown.

“I do know the anxiety level is going up and the stress levels are going up. It’s been building for some time. This is putting gasoline on the fire,” said Ryan, who toured the prison Tuesday.

The tense nature of the situation is evident at Hazleton, the high-security facility where crime boss Whitey Bulger was killed by inmates in October.

Union and prison officials say seven officers have been attacked in three separate incidents since Friday. None of the officers received serious injuries. The high-security prison typically sees that many assaults over the course of a month, said Heldreth.

Prison officials acknowledged the three incidents took place but did not provide further comment.

The number of officers and other staff members calling in sick has quadrupled at the prison, rising from an average of 15 to 20 employees a day to about 80 a day, Heldreth said, citing data provided to him by the prison.

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Officers are being asked to work 16-hour shifts once or twice a week as opposed to once or twice a month, Heldreth said. Staff members who are not law enforcement officers are being told to leave their desk jobs to fill in for absent guards on nearly a weekly, as opposed to monthly, basis. At the time of their hiring, these workers receive three weeks of guard training at the Federal Bureau of Prisons academy in Georgia.

That was 20 years ago for 52-year-old Opal Brown, a secretary in the Hazleton prison’s education department. Since the shutdown, Brown has worked two shifts as an officer, once in the high-security penitentiary patrolling inmates whom she never encounters during her regular job.

“I have no rapport with them. They know you are not an officer, and they want to push you to see how far they can go. It’s very dangerous,” Brown said.

One particularly humiliating aspect of the shutdown for prison guards has been that inmates are aware that the guards are not getting paid.

On New Year’s Day, prisoners even received special meals like steak or Cornish game hen, which were served by officers who were not receiving pay.

Sensing the guards’ insecurity, the prisoners are taunting officers and even testing them to see if they can be bribed, union leaders and staff members say.

“Inmates know about the shutdown; they know we aren’t getting paid. They play on that stress,” said Shoemaker, the correctional officer in Virginia.

Meanwhile, few things have changed for prisoners, who continue to receive food and medical care out of a fund that has already been appropriated for the year by Congress.

Several officers said inmates openly gloated on Friday when they received their paychecks for the work they perform at the prison. If an officer didn’t hear about it from an inmate, they saw the telltale sign of payday when inmates lined up at the commissary to buy their weekly supply of snacks, stamps and soda.

Prisoners perform various jobs — mostly to maintain the facilities — for between 12 cents and $1 an hour, plus the occasional bonus. Inmates aren’t making much money, but their paychecks felt like a slap in the face, said Shane Fausey, the local union president at the prison in Allenwood, Pa. Fausey said they are funded through commissary profits.

“We are risking our lives, but we aren’t getting paid,” Fausey said. “We are paying the guys who molest our kids and steal from the elderly.””

At a prison complex in Lompoc, Calif., correctional officer Ryan Enos said that since the shutdown began, two inmates have taunted him about not being paid and one tested him to see whether he was susceptible to being bribed.

Enos works in a place called “the hole,” where inmates who are being disciplined are locked in their cells for 23 hours a day. The first taunt, Enos said, came last week as Enos was walking an inmate in restraints back to his cell after his one-hour break.

“He said, ‘Hey are you getting paid yet? That’s why you should work for the cartels. They never close,’” Enos recalled.

“They are always looking for an angle,” he said. “Anytime anyone shows any type of weakness, they will use that to their advantage.”

Several prison workers said there is widespread anger directed at Washington, especially since President Trump and members of Congress are still receiving pay during the shutdown while they are failing to resolve the budget impasse. They also said they feel abandoned by Trump and Congress.

“These are honest, hard-working people who are paying the price for this game of political cat and mouse,” Fausey said. “They just want to go home safe and sound and be able to take care of their families. I think the government needs to show them some loyalty and pay them for a good day’s work.”

At a news conference with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Wednesday, the national president for the union that represents correctional officers said Trump’s argument about the wall is disingenuous.

“What does it serve America, the public, to shut down the government in the name of border security and neglect our internal security and the fabric inside our federal prisons?” said Eric Young. “We are the faces behind this shutdown . . . If something happens to any of our professionals behind this distraction, blood will be on your hands. Stop playing chicken with our lives.”

kimberly.kindy@washpost.com

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