As federal workers affected by the partial government shutdown approach the end of a second pay period without compensation, Eric Young, national president of the Council of Prison Locals, has been doing what he can to publicize the plight of prison workers across the nation.
“We represent 33,000 law enforcement officers in the federal bureau of prisons out of the 38,000 employees employed by the federal Bureau of Prisons. Most of them are being required to work at our 122 facilities nationwide, from Hawaii across the mainland of America to the island of Puerto Rico,” says Young.
At the Federal Correctional Institution Forrest City, Brandy Moore, national secretary-treasurer of the Council of Prison Locals, says morale is low at that facility but most of the corrections officers are still reporting for work, even without pay.
“Prison work is very stressful to begin with and then you start mandating people and that makes it that much worse and then you start not paying people and the stress level is astronomical,” says Moore. “But we know that you can’t leave a prison unstaffed. That leads to a very unsafe community.”
Nationally, Young has heard from officers who have set up GoFundMe campaigns to raise money for medications for their children and those who are struggling to pay utility bills so they can provide heat for their families.
“There is a child in New York whose parents are both corrections officers,” he says. “They are so scared in the winter months that their lights are going to go off and their son is going to die because he’s on a ventilator in their home. These are the things that keep me awake and night asking myself what else I can do.”
Moore’s time now is dedicated to union representation; before that she worked in the facilities department at the prison in Forrest City. Lately, she has been doing what she can to find support for the prison’s 542 employees.
“I literally have been on the phone all morning trying to set up stuff with food pantries and food banks because I would say that almost 80 percent of our staff lives paycheck to paycheck,” she says. “We have a lot of single income families and we have a lot of spouses who work out there.”
One employee quit, leaving to search for another job. Others are taking days off here and there to work odd jobs so they can make a little money to cover immediate expenses, and others still have reported finding it impossible to work second jobs because spending their days working without pay leaves them with no money to cover gas and childcare expenses for an after-hours gig.
At Moore’s urging, though, a couple of local businesses have extended lines of credit for area residents who are struggling to get by. A grocery store in Wynne is allowing federal government employees $150 per week lines of credit, for example, and a fuel company is offering those people one tank of gas per week until the shutdown ends.
She is putting together a list supplies families might need, as well, like diapers, wipes and formula and pet food, in hopes of getting donations when she can find a place to store them.
“A lot of people are too proud to go to a food pantry, unfortunately,” she says. “They are the bread winners of the family and they don’t want to take anything out of somebody else’s mouth that really needs it so my focus all morning has been trying to get something set up on site at our place so people don’t have to go into the community and go to the food banks.”
Young and Moore are frustrated with the situation.
“If you go into the public and work somewhere where if someone doesn’t pay you for a lunch break that they have to pay fines and they have people who tell them that that’s against the law, but yet they’re allowing the government to do it to 800,000 of us. It’s absolutely insane to me,” says Moore.
Young, who grew up in Miami and worked as a corrections officer there before being elected to the union office, takes exception to the basis for the shutdown.
“To basically use this ruse of a wall and state we need to secure our borders when you’re neglecting the internal fabric of security inside our nation’s prisons …” he says, “it’s totally disrespectful of us in the harshest sense.”