Tensions rise in Federal Prisons Amid Shutdown

01/16/2019
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.
 
“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 everyday, 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.”
 
Brian Shoemaker stands in front of the Lee Penitentiary in Pennington Gap, Va. (Shawn Poynter/For The Washington Post)
 
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 a verage annual salaries of between $40,000 to $50,000.
 
By Kimbery Kindy for the Washington Post

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