In­mates feast as guards must work with­out pay

‘They are laugh­ing at us,’ union leader says

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - FRONT PAGE - Kevin John­son

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.”

Eric Young

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.”

REINHOLD MATAY/AP

In­mates at this fed­eral prison in Florida tra­di­tion­ally get spe­cial hol­i­day meals.

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