BEHIND BARS... FOR NOW
Prison workers forced to work without pay warn of gang riots and escapes if US partial shutdown continues, writes Clark Mindock
GUARDS in some of America’s most dangerous prisons are warning that escapes and riots could be coming if the partial government shutdown continues to drag on with no end in sight.
Many of those deemed “essential” to government work, such as prison officials, are having to work without pay, leaving some worried that gaps could become rife if guards are pushed away by the instability, or call in sick. The shutdown, sparked by the struggle over border wall funding between President Donald Trump and Democrats in congress, is already into its 21st day.
Jose Rojas, a 24-year-veteran of the Prison Bureau, is worried that a lengthy government shutdown could exasperate an already delicate situation at the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex where he works in central Florida.
“You’re going to have riots. You’re going to have predatory inmates pick on the weaker inmates. You’re going to have rape. You’re going to have violence toward the staff. You’re going to have escapes,” Mr Rojas says, describing what he sees as a possibility if the government shutdown lasts for months and drives guards away.
“They don’t realise what’s happening right now,” he says of the politicians in Washington arguing over the border wall. He mentions the deadly gangs that are penned up in the US jails. “We have a lot of MS13, Latin Kings — we have the worst of the worst. If we don’t have anyone to watch the inmates, we’re going to have riots, we’re going to have escapes.”
With childcare costs, medical bills and mortgages to pay, many workers have been told to plead with creditors and landlords for respite as they wait for the shutdown to end.
While some workers have been simply granted leave of absence, essential workers have been instructed to come to work — even though they will not get paid, or face potential professional repercussions if they do not. To make up for the lost income, some are being forced to work extra hours moonlighting odd jobs to keep food on the table. For Mr Rojas, it is driving his car for Uber.
The fact politicians in Washington are willing to risk prison guards’ safety by adding extra stress on top of an already dangerous and demanding job has left many frustrated, with the shutdown approaching the longest in history.
Mr Rojas’s experience and perspective is not unique for the contingent of prison guards and workers who are in charge of making sure violent offenders — including the types of criminals with gangs like MS-13 that Mr Trump so frequently cites as a reason for the border wall — stay locked up and away from the general population.
“We are 100pc the front line for the individuals who are incarcerated and the public. If it weren’t for us, those people wouldn’t stay in prison,” says Roger Ware, a prison worker in West Virginia and an official in the prison officers union.
Mr Ware has begun working in construction at weekends to help pay his mortgage, keep food on the table for his five children, and to make sure he and his wife — who also works at the US penitentiary in Hazelton — can just afford the gas to make the daily 120-mile round trip trek to the prison job where they are not getting paid and have no idea when they will.
The US federal government shut down after Mr Trump decided that he would not sign government funding bills that do not include $5.7bn (€5bn) to erect a physical barrier on the US-Mexico border that he says is essential to keeping the US safe.
Democrats have rejected that request, offering $1.3bn (€1.13bn) in funding for border security but refusing to spend money on a wall that critics say would have limited impact on immigration and smuggling issues that the president says shows it is necessary.
Last Wednesday, any ongoing talks between the president and Democrats appeared to break down when Mr Trump abruptly walked out of a meeting in the White House after Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi refused to promise to negotiate funding a wall.
Meanwhile, federal workers including those in US prisons have been told to reach out to their creditors to tell them of their situations and hope that they will be given some relief. Some banks have offered zero-interest loans to help those workers get by, but that appears to be the exception to the rule.
Justin Tarovisky, a union official in West Virginia, says instructions to federal workers to ask for charity from landlords and banks are a “slap in the face”, especially considering the conditions he and his colleagues face on a daily basis.
“When I leave the prison, when I leave those walls behind me, I gotta go and I gotta pay my bills. I gotta pay for daycare. I gotta pay for gas. I gotta pay for my cellphone,” Mr Tarovisky says.
“When you’re being told that you are not going to be paid, that’s a slap in the face of the hard-working blue collar workers, federal workers, who go inside these walls to keep America safe.”
HARD TIME: Jailed gang members in a federal jail in California