Metro-East News

Greenville prison employees work without pay amid government shutdown

Inside of the Greenville Federal Correctional Institution, there aren’t enough employees to fill every eight-hour shift. So when overtime is offered, and no one takes it, an unlucky and probably tired correctional officer is mandated to stay for an extra shift.

Now on top of the staff shortages, more than 16,700 federal prison employees around the country, deemed essential workers, are among the more than 450,000 federal employees on the clock without being paid because of the federal government shutdown. They’ll be due a pay check at the end of the week and with the ongoing shutdown, it won’t come.

An additional 380,000 employees in the federal government have been furloughed.

“If there would be a fight break out at 2 o’clock on a Tuesday on the institution main compound ... there would be 100 staff members to respond to that,” said Dave Clark a 38-year-old correctional officer and union member of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1304.

“But if it’s a weekend, and I’ve done 16 hours and I’m exhausted and that same fight happens in my housing unit and hit my body alarm, which is my way to announce that I need assistance to our main control center, once that’s relayed, and I’m depending on 15 or 16 staff total,” Clark continued. “A lot of them have direct supervision of inmates and can’t leave their areas. It becomes really a tense situation, where if you make mistakes or you don’t make quick actions, things can go bad.”

There are 231 people employed at the Greenville prison, short of its authorized level of 262 staff members. Among the openings are 19 correctional officer positions to watch over more than 1,200 inmates in the medium security facility.

As the authorized levels of employees have dropped in recent years because of budget cuts, and positions go away through attrition, correctional officers have felt the crunch, Clark said.

“Our staffing levels, along with working conditions are decreasing, and along with that morale decreases,” Clark said. “As the morale decreases, staff become less energized, less willing to come in and do a little extra, or work an overtime, now they get mandated and it’s more begrudging to them. Morale is going to continue to decline until something with staffing levels or working conditions go up … the shutdown only grossly increases the staff members stress and things like that.”

The shutdown battle has been over whether there would $5.7 billion made available for to pay for a physical barrier along the southern border of the country.

President Donald Trump wants money to build a physical barrier, between the U.S. and Mexico. Building a wall was a central campaign promise in 2016 and remains popular among his base. Democrats, who now control the U.S. House of Representatives, don’t want wall funding in an appropriations bill which would reopen the 25 percent of the federal government which is now shut down.

Extra shifts take their toll

The Greenville correctional facility has had a hard time recruiting people, said Brian Mueller, the president of Local 1304, who works as a recreational specialist at the prison.

Mueller said morale at the Greenville and Bureau of Prisons is at an all-time low in his 19-year career. The shortage and shutdown is a double whammy.

Officers that have worked for less than five years are looking at other opportunities.

“With the short staffing and the hiring freezes and the freezing of any cost of living raises and you add a shutdown on top of it, it makes recruitment very difficult,” Mueller said.

And working extra shifts can take its toll.

“It starts to become a safety issue because we’re supposed to be vigilant and aware of our surroundings when you’re dealing with an inmate population and sometimes you’re outnumbered 100-to-1. And you’re on hour number 14 out of 16, you’re not going to be as sharp, you’re not going to be aware of your surroundings,” Mueller said. “You multiply that by two or three of those double shifts a week, yeah it is quite concerning.”

John Daugherty, 49, of Edwardsville, is another union correctional officer in Greenville. He said with less staffing it’s more like employees will be injured on the job, such as when they have to stop physical altercations inside the prison — which could happen two or three times a week.

“There’s been staff hurt breaking up fights many times. It happens all the time,” Daugherty said.

Federal legislators on the shutdown

There are six federal prisons in Illinois, two of which are in the southern part of the state.

“We all are thinking about those loyal hardworking federal employees who are caught in the middle of the challenges that we face here in Washington,” U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville said on the House floor Wednesday. Greenville is in Shimkus’ district. “As with other battles these employees will be paid for their time away from the workplace while they are on furlough.”

In the floor speech Shimkus argued walls work in reducing illegal border crossings.

“Since walls work it has historically held bipartisan support,” he said. “It is time that we work together to compromise to reopen the government and secure our southern border.”

During a telephone town hall this week, U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, whose district includes the federal prison in Marion, said there is a push to make sure workers get back pay.

“I have many federal employees in my district, some are in these situations,” Bost said. “We want to be sure we work hard to make sure they go back to work and are receiving pay as soon possible, but we are in a situation and a crisis, and I don’t understand why (House Speaker) Nancy Pelosi and (Senate Minority Leader) Chuck Schumer, who voted for a package, bigger in the last negotiation, the president offered to them, will not come to the table.”

Bost had two visits to his district from President Trump in one year. The now third-term congressman faced a tough re-election, has stayed loyal to the president and the message of border security.

“It doesn’t have to be a wall. It could be a fence, but it has to be a secure border,” Bost said.

“This flood has strained government resources, overwhelmed agencies, charged with border security and immigration enforcement,” Bost said. “We must secure our borders. It’s sad some Washington politicians would shut down our government just so they could avoid making border security a priority.”

Democrat Tammy Duckworth, who is the junior senator from Illinois, placed the blame on Trump.

“The Trump shutdown is punishing the American people and hurting workers across our state who aren’t receiving paychecks and suddenly have to worry about how they’ll pay their bills. It’s absolutely unnecessary – we can negotiate on border security without holding the American people and paychecks for roughly 800,000 families hostage,” Duckworth said. “The House of Representatives has already passed bipartisan legislation to re-open the government. Senate Republicans must allow us the chance to vote to do the same immediately.”

At the end of the day, the prison employees are among the more than 800,000 employees caught in the middle of a political fight.

‘Work this out’

The union just wants both sides to compromise and come to an agreement.

“They have to sit down and they have to work this out,” Mueller said. “Whatever the side of the argument anybody might be on. The federal employees didn’t sign up for this. They signed up to do a day’s work for a day’s pay. Negotiate, get a deal done, get a budget passed. Let us work under a less stressful situation knowing we’re going to get paid on time.”

Clark said he voted for Trump in 2016 and is a Republican.

“I understand that border security has got to be paramount to the security of our nation, I just hate to see the wall, and the agenda of Democrats and Republicans to be to put 800,000 government workers as political pawns as an effort to leverage one another to get what they want,” Clark said. “At some point they have to be bipartisan and put their personal agendas or their political agendas for their parties aside and the American people need them to work together to do what’s best for our country while not putting one or another or federal employees at the wayside.”

Union leaders are worried about the single parents whose sole income comes from the federal paycheck.

Clark said he and wife, Karen, have two kids, now have discussed prioritizing payments as the paycheck doesn’t come in.

“We have to pay the power bill. Pay the phone bill so we could communicate with our family in times of emergency and make sure there’s food on the table and pay our mortgage,” Clark said. “Outside of that, everything else is it gets put on the back burner because of the shutdown, it has to because those are the things that come first.”

Even as they work without knowing if and when they will be paid, the correctional officers say they won’t be doing anything to call in sick in large numbers as a way to protest, as has been reported among Transportation Security Administration employees.

The union leaders say their workers continue to show up for work.

“We are a very proud group and a very loyal group and at the end of the day, if an officer calls in sick, it affects another officer and they have to pick up the slack,” Mueller said. “They’re very open minded and have to take care of each other and watch each other’s back.”

Joseph Bustos is the state affairs and politics reporter for the Belleville News-Democrat, where he strives to hold elected officials accountable and provide context to decisions they make. He has won multiple awards from the Illinois Press Association for coverage of sales tax referenda.