Corrections Officers Bring Home Impact Of Federal Shutdown: More Danger, No Pay

PINEVILLE, La.—Tim Raffray is lucky: He’s alive.  Some of his colleagues aren’t.  And, due to the congressional impasse over federal spending, more may die – and none will get paid in the foreseeable future, his union warns.

Raffray, a military veteran, is a federal correctional officer at Pollock Correctional Center, a maximum-security prison in central Louisiana.   The prison is so short-staffed – as are other federal prisons nationwide – that on virtually every shift, one correctional officer oversees at least 100 inmates: Murderers, drug dealers, domestic terrorists, etc.

And when they’re out of their cells for a few permitted hours daily, they jump the correctional officers.  That’s what happened to Raffray just after 8 a.m. on June 15.

“I was in there by myself with 116 inmates,” he says.  “I was stabbed 23 times.  I’ve suffered a punctured liver, a punctured diaphragm, broken ribs and I’ve still got nerve damage in both hands.  The inmate didn’t kill me, but that was his intent.”

Raffray says he would have avoided injury had there been a second correctional officer on the shift with him.  The colleague would have activated a body alarm, which would have brought help on the double, come to his aid, or both.

But in federal prisons, his union, the American Federation of Government Employees’ Council of Prison Locals, points out, there are no second officers on those shifts.   As a result, corrections officers die: The council introduced survivors of three of them at the press conference, while warning more of its members are in danger.

And now, the AFGE council and its leaders point out, the corrections officers won’t get paid for their dangerous work, either.

That’s because the federal Bureau of Prisons classified corrections officers and other federal prison personnel as “essential” and ordered them to report to work despite the government-wide shutdown that began Oct. 1.  It may not pay them, however, for the “shutdown” time, even if the impasse over funding the government is resolved.

Past budget cuts have left the corrections officers with only one officer per shift, with inadequate armor or protection – they don’t even have pepper spray – and trying to guard inmates and prevent contraband knives, moonshine and drugs from being smuggled in and crazing and empowering the inmates.   Adding a second corrections officer to every shift nationwide would cost $74 million yearly, AFGE calculates.

The ruling House GOP imposed the shutdown.  It’s withholding all government money in its attempt to abolish the previously enacted health care law, the Affordable Care Act.  That only intensifies sacrifices – such as 3-year pay freeze – workers suffer.

“Cutting our benefits and balancing the budget on the backs of blue-collar workers is shameful,” said Eric Young, president of the Council of Prison Locals.  And for the politicians, the shutdown and their plan to abolish funds for the health care law “is just a talking point for the next mid-term election,” he adds.

“Like every member of Congress, these brave men and women take an oath to ‘preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.’  They are preserving, protecting and defending society from the worst of the worst.  You let them down today,” Young said, directing his remarks at absent lawmakers.

Whether the stories of short-staffing and danger in prisons will have any impact on legislators is another matter.  Young said after the session that he, the corrections officers and survivors of the murdered COs will spend the whole first week of October lobbying lawmakers to end the shutdown and sufficiently fund and staff prisons.

Democratic President Barack Obama wants $6.8 billion for the prisons.  The Senate seems willing to agree, but the House wants to cut $300 million.  Federal prisons house 176,655 inmates and have 36,271 correctional workers, not all of whom are trained corrections officers. Private prisons house another 42,350 minimum-security inmates. Federal prisons are more than 40% overcrowded, union leaders add.

The corrections officers weren’t the only federal workers who had to report to their jobs on Oct. 1 without the promise of being paid. Others include passport workers, immigration checkers, food inspectors and air traffic controllers.  Most are unionized.

Those sent home include half of the Defense Department’s 800,000 civilian workers, IRS workers, workers who run the women-infant-children feeding program, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Education Department.  Only 2,900 of the Labor Department’s 16,000 workers will be “essential” and unpaid.  That’s not all.

“Washington’s destructive politics make it impossible to run a national transportation system,” AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department President Ed Wytkind noted.  “Most grant-making operations are suspended because the dedicated professionals needed to distribute these vital investments will not be on the job.  This means critical resources for all modes of transport will not flow in a timely fashion.  This could have a severe impact” on states, transportation agencies and private companies.

But the workers will take the real hit.  “We’re dealing with a government lockout” of its own workers, AFGE President J. David Cox concluded.                    

-PAI