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Federal Prisoners Paid During Government Shutdown, but Not Prison Guards

One of the ironies of the recent 16-day federal government shutdown, which ended on October 16, 2013, is that prisoners in the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) continued to receive their paychecks while BOP workers did not. FCI Forrest City, Arkansas prison employee and local union president Jeff Roberts, and his counterpart at FCI Oxford in Wisconsin, Dave Dauman, as well as other prison staffers, apparently failed to see the humor in that situation.

While Roberts, Dauman and other BOP employees are dependent on Congress to approve the Bureau of Prisons’ budget (and thus their paychecks), wages for federal prisoners – which range on average from less than $20 to slightly over $100 a month – come from different funding sources that do not rely on annual appropriations, including UNICOR and commissary accounts.

What this means is that while BOP guards, among other federal workers, were held hostage to the partisan bickering in Washington, prisoners were not. Some BOP employees expressed frustration that prisoners continued to receive their pay while staff members, who were deemed “essential” employees and still had to report to work, didn’t – though it was unclear whether they were angry with the prisoners or with members of Congress, who also continued to get paychecks.

“It just seems wrong on so many levels,” said Roberts. “There’s a sense of fear among the employees, they do not want to have to default on a loan or have their credit affected or have a bad name within the community,” he noted. “The inmates who have committed the crimes in this country and are incarcerated by violating the laws of common society, they’re not affected by the shutdown, but the employees that we trust to keep our communities safe are.”

“A lot of us are concerned about how we’re going to get to work next week. Just because we’re federal employees, we still live paycheck to paycheck,” Dauman added. “We supervise inmates who perform duties within the institution, and those inmates at this point are getting paid. They do get paid out of a little different funding. It still falls under the Bureau of Prison’s budget.”

At least he acknowledged that it wasn’t the prisoners’ fault that BOP employees were not receiving their paychecks. “I blame Congress. I think there’s a simple solution – even a continued resolution for 90 days – then they could talk about affordable health care and whatever else.”

“To these lawmakers, they need to understand the government is not a business. It’s an expense. They want their criminals locked up because they don’t want them running around in the streets. That costs money,” said Don Peace, president of the local union at USP McCreary in Kentucky.

Other prison union officials weighed in on the government shutdown, too.

“This is the craziest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. I’m completely stunned at the behavior of our elected officials,” stated Jill Carver, a teacher and local union president at FCI Beckley in West Virginia. “We’re tired of being the pawns.”

USP Atlanta guard and local union president Kelvin Williams noted during the shutdown that “Bills still keep coming in, mortgage needs to be paid. I don’t know how I’m going to feed my family and keep the roof over my head and the lights on.”

Apparently, the comments by Roberts, Dauman, Carver, Peace, Williams and other federal prison union officials were part of a coordinated nationwide media campaign intended to draw attention to the plight of unpaid BOP workers.

According to a news report, at least one credit union for prison employees helped out during the shutdown by offering low-interest loans. BOP employees will receive back pay for the shutdown period, thus their pay was only delayed, not denied. Further, the vast majority of federal prison staffers – around 84% – were exempt from unpaid furloughs.

Perhaps the real problem is the BOP’s constantly growing prison population. Too many prisoners translates into too much money being spent, and when the funding source for most of that money suddenly stops there are immediate and unpleasant consequences. Congress, the BOP and federal prison workers presumably learned that lesson during the government shutdown.

At least while Congress and President Obama tried to sort out the federal budget, BOP prisoners – who had no say in the matter because they have no political voice and are unable to vote, unlike unionized prison employees – continued to receive their meager paychecks. Which only seems fair.

Sources:,,, New York Post, Charleston Daily Mail,,

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