Inmates feast as guards must work without pay
‘They are laughing at us,’ union leader says
WASHINGTON – Even as the government shutdown dimmed the holidays for hundreds of thousands of federal workers, inmates in the nation’s largest federal prison were treated to a display of culinary largesse that many of the workers saw as badly timed.
Instead of the usual scrambled egg or hamburger lunch, thousands of prisoners at the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex just outside of Orlando, Florida, tucked into a Christmas spread of herb-dusted Cornish game hens, cornbread dressing, gravy, rice pilaf and assorted pies.
A week later, they rang in the New Year with grilled steak, black-eyed peas, green beans, macaroni and cheese, biscuits and more pie.
“I been eatin like a boss all week,” Marques Demiko Brown, 20, wrote to a pen pal on New Year’s Day.
Special holiday menus have been a staple for years within the Federal Bureau of Prisons to promote morale, officials said. But the generous meals – served up as the federal shutdown churned on – highlighted an increasingly raw struggle by workers, many living paycheck to paycheck on the lowest
rungs of the government pay scale.
“This is appalling,” said Coleman prison union chief Joe Rojas. “We’re not getting paid, and the inmates are eating steak. The inmates know what’s going on; they know about the shutdown, and they are laughing at us.”
Many of the federal prison system’s nearly 39,000 staffers are among the most modestly paid in the federal system, with some entry-level officers earning about $38,000 per year. Yet few federal agencies have been exposed to the added stress of a systemwide staffing shortage, which has forced hundreds of secretaries, teachers, counselors, cooks and medical staffers to cover open guard posts across 122 prisons just in the past year.
As the shutdown heads into its third week, more than 90 percent of agency guards and other staff have been
“These are the same law enforcement officers who are charged with the ultimate responsibility to keep prisons and communities safe all across America.”
President of the national prison workers union
pressed into mandatory duty.
With no compromise in sight, Eric Young, president of the national prison workers union, said Friday that he was warning members to prepare for perhaps a month without a paycheck.
President Donald Trump and lawmakers said after talks Friday that an agreement could be a long way off.
Trump, who has demanded $5.6 billion to help pay for a border wall, acknowledged warning Democrats that an impasse could last for months or even years if a deal cannot be reached on financing for the wall.
“It sickens me to know these politicians would play politics ... with our staffers’ livelihoods after working the most stressful job in America,” Young said. Many workers are “completely distracted from their work” and focusing on keeping up on debts, he said.
Few agencies have endured a year as difficult as the federal prison system. Apart from the persistent staffing shortages, officials have had to answer to sexual harassment claims and problems managing 12,567 female inmates.
In May, the bureau’s director, Mark Inch, resigned after less than a year on the job. Last week, a congressional review found that misconduct by senior federal prison officials is “largely tolerated or ignored altogether.”
Rojas said that up to a dozen officers were designated or threatened with a designation of being absent without leave, or “AWOL,” when they did not immediately report as the shutdown took effect just before Christmas.
“Talk about adding insult to injury,” Rojas said. “These were people, some who were on long-planned leave with their families, had pre-paid travel. The government is not going to cover those expenses.”
Inmates at this federal prison in Florida traditionally get special holiday meals.