Shutdown deal offers little relief for prison workers

No time to save up if talks fail, says officer at federal facility

Posted 1/28/19

The longest partial government shutdown in United States history may be over for now, but the news isn’t relieving tensions at FCI Englewood, the sprawling federal prison on the southwest side of …

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Shutdown deal offers little relief for prison workers

No time to save up if talks fail, says officer at federal facility

Posted

The longest partial government shutdown in United States history may be over for now, but the news isn’t relieving tensions at FCI Englewood, the sprawling federal prison on the southwest side of the Denver metro area.

“We’re going to catch up on mortgage payments and bills, but if they shut it down again, we’ve exhausted our savings,” said Chris Janssen, the president of Local 709 of the American Federation of Government Employees, the prison’s union.

President Trump and Congress agreed on Jan. 25 to fund the government through Feb. 15, meaning federal employees like Janssen and roughly 300 other staffers at the prison will get back pay owed to them following the 35-day shutdown, but what happens after that is unknown.

“If elected leaders keep playing games, we won’t have anywhere to turn,” Janssen said. “It’s a pressure release for right now, but it’s almost more terrifying because we can’t replenish our savings while we wait for the other shoe to drop.”

The shutdown was hard on prison staffing, Janssen said, as correctional officers increasingly called in sick after coming into work for weeks without pay.

Teachers and plumbers were guarding sex offenders as officers called in sick, Janssen said.

“These people are supposed to be keeping the lights on or helping inmates get ready to re-integrate into society, and instead they’re guarding blocks of 200 prisoners,” Janssen said.

The prison near the intersection of West Quincy Avenue and South Kipling Street houses roughly 1,000 inmates across three main camps, Janssen said. The population covers all security levels, and includes hundreds of sex offenders, he said.

“We’ve got everyone from embezzlers to cop killers,” Janssen said. “The worse staffing gets, the greater the likelihood of riots, murders and suicides. We have seen all of those here in the past.”

The situation at the prison could grow worse if the shutdown resumes, Janssen said, as logjams at the Department of Justice could mean that offenders who are sentenced by judges in Denver’s federal court aren’t able to be sent to their designated prisons.

Staff members are facing scary situations in their personal lives, Janssen said.

“Our standards of employee conduct mandate that we have to maintain good credit and pay our debtors on time. If we don’t, we’re automatically subject to discipline, from letters of reprimand up to firing.”

Many prison staffers called in sick to drive for Uber and Lyft, Janssen said, because they could get quick cash to pay bills.

“Federal employees don’t make as much money as people think,” Janssen said. “A guard here starts at $44,000 a year, but for someone paying a mortgage and raising a family, that’s not a lot. You’ve got guys in their 30s borrowing against their retirement accounts, knowing they’re not going to be able to pay it back.”

Janssen, a Navy veteran and 12-year employee of the Bureau of Prisons, said he accepted the help of friends and neighbors to feed his two young children.

“It’s disgraceful,” Janssen said. “People say, ‘Oh, you’ll get your back pay eventually,’ but that doesn’t put food on my table tonight. I’ve got people dropping off soup at my house like it’s the Depression.”

Janssen said he doesn’t want to wade into the politics of the shutdown.

“We’re hoping the government comes to their senses and does the right thing,” Janssen said. “If I do the work, I want my pay.”

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