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

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Worldwide -

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

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