Corrections officers working unpaid call situation ‘dire’
DANBURY, Conn. — Pat Wynne, a correctional officer at the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury was visiting family as part of his Christmas vacation when the government shutdown began on Dec. 22.
Soon after, a call from the federal Bureau of Prisons informed him that paid leave had been cancelled — meaning he would have to return to his job where he would be working without pay until the shutdown is resolved. He cut his vacation four days short.
“It’s use or lose, I’ll never get that back,” he said. “I’m not the only one, there’s many people that came back early from vacations and doing stuff with their children. It’s horrible.”
As the first days of the shutdown stretched into weeks, the situation has turned dire. On Friday, the 100 correctional officers and about 160 support staff at the facility missed their first paycheque as a result of the shutdown. Many of the officers, including 48-year-old Wynne, have already suffered long-lasting financial consequences. If the government doesn’t reopen soon, he, his colleagues and the prison itself will face changes with far-reaching effects.
“I’ve spoken to people at work, yesterday; they’ve already made arrangements with the captain. They told him if they don’t get paid this week, they won’t be coming to work,” said Andrew Uberroth, 48, a correctional officer and president of the local American Federation of Government Employees union branch.
“They don’t have the funds. They’re choosing between either putting food on the table for their family or driving to work and not getting paid. So they’re choosing their families first.”
In addition to their financial struggles, prison officials are worried the shutdown will make their work environment more treacherous.
“It makes the prison more dangerous,” said Robert Curnan, 40, correctional officer and union member. “You have people whose focuses are being split, and they’re going into a building with dangerous individuals where they have to be alert and do their jobs. And if they aren’t paying attention somebody could get hurt.”
Michael S. Parady, a correctional officer and union member, and his colleagues are worried the shutdown will also increase the risk of stress and fatigue-induced errors at the prison. Many of the prison workers will have to take part-time jobs to survive an extended shutdown, all while working mandatory overtime to account for the depleted staff. Shifts can be as long as 16 hours.
“I know as soon as I get home I’m filling out job applications to try to get something part time. I have to,” Parady said Thursday.
Compounding the problem is that the prison was short-staffed to begin with: Danbury is complimented for 134 officers, but due to a variety of issues, there are only 100 on staff. On Jan. 3 a fire sent seven staff members to the hospital for minor smoke inhalation and assessment. If too few officers report to work, the prison goes on lockdown and the potential for violence skyrockets.
“Whatever crime you can think of, use your wildest, most twisted imagination, we have them,” Parady said.
Though they work at a low-security prison, many of the inmates have committed serious and violent crimes and over the course of their lives in prison have been promoted to low-security for good behaviour. When the prisoners’ routine and recreational time is interrupted, as would happen during a lockdown, tempers can flare, the officers said.
Parady said inmates are constantly looking for ways to sow discord and manipulate prison staff.
“They will compromise staff, it’s happened many times in my career. I don’t know how it happens but it does,” Parady said. “They know we have car payments, they know we have mortgage payments, they know we’re under the added stress of not being paid. I guarantee there are several just dying to find a crack in the armour: how can they get into our heads?”
In an ironic twist, the inmates on work assignment are still being paid for the work they do repairing and maintaining the 79-year-old prison.
“The inmate that I’m supervising is getting paid for the job that he’s doing, but the federal law enforcement officer that’s supervising him is not getting paid,” Wynne said. “And the inmates know this.”
The Danbury Federal Correctional Institution is a 365-acre campus that houses 1,050 inmates across three facilities: a low-security male unit, a low-security female unit and a minimum security female satellite facility. The officers are responsible for every aspect of the prisoners’ lives, from keeping the peace in the dormitory-style housing units to overseeing prisoner work assignments.
The officers at the Danbury Federal Correctional Institution are some of the about 1,500 federal employees living in Connecticut affected by the shutdown. It is unclear how many of those employees are working without pay during the shutdown, according to the office of U.S. Sen. Christopher S. Murphy. On Thursday, a video Murphy posted on his Facebook page, in which he read testimonials from some of the affected workers, mentioned his office has received over 1,000 letters and calls from constituents about the shutdown. Nationally, 400,000 federal law enforcement officials are working without pay during the shutdown.
The average pay for a new correctional officer at Danbury is $45,000, with senior- most officials making more than $70,000. Nationally, the average salary is $53,976, according to Indeed.com. Wynne and Uberroth said many of the officers at Danbury are single parents and live paycheque to paycheque.
“That uncertainty, it’s even worse on the kids,” said Wynne.
He was able to delay his car payment for a month and tried to lower his mortgage payment, but was told it would adversely affect his credit.
Curnan said many of the officers at Danbury are young and can afford to walk away from their jobs if the situation isn’t resolved quickly.
“They’re just going to leave and the government is going to lose employees by the handful,” he said. “The people who come to work and do the right thing and pay their bills, these are the people that aren’t going to be afford to stay.”
- Harrison Connery
News from © The Associated Press Enterprises Inc., 2019
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