WASHINGTON – Even as the government shutdown dimmed the holidays for hundreds of thousands of federal workers, inmates in the nation’s largest federal prison were treated to a display of culinary largesse that many of the workers saw as badly timed.
Instead of the usual scrambled egg or hamburger lunch, thousands of prisoners at the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex just outside Orlando, Florida, tucked into a Christmas spread of herb-dusted Cornish game hens, cornbread dressing, gravy, rice pilaf and assorted pies.
A week later, they rang in the new year with grilled steak, black-eyed peas, green beans, macaroni and cheese, biscuits and more pie.
Special holiday menus have been a staple for years within the Federal Bureau of Prisons to promote morale. But the generous meals – served up as the federal shutdown churned on – highlighted an increasingly raw struggle by workers, many at the lowest rungs of the government pay scale who live paycheck to paycheck.
“This is appalling,” said Coleman prison union chief Joe Rojas. “We’re not getting paid, and the inmates are eating steak. The inmates know what’s going on; they know about the shutdown, and they are laughing at us.”
Many of the federal prison system’s nearly 39,000 staffers are among the most modestly paid in the federal system – some entry-level officers earn about $38,000 per year. Few federal agencies have been exposed to the added stress of a systemwide staffing shortage, which forced hundreds of secretaries, teachers, counselors, cooks and medical staffers to cover open guard posts across 122 prisons in the past year.
During the shutdown, which is headed into its third week, more than 90 percent of agency guards and other staff have been pressed into mandatory duty.
There was no compromise in sight in Washington, so Eric Young, president of the national prison workers union, said Friday that he warned members to prepare for perhaps a month without a paycheck.
President Donald Trump and lawmakers emerged Friday afternoon from their latest round of talks at the White House, only to indicate that an agreement could be a long way off.
Trump, who demanded $5.6 billion to help pay for a disputed border wall, acknowledged warning Democratic leaders that an impasse could last for months, or even years, if a deal cannot be reached on financing for the wall.
“It sickens me to know these politicians would play politics … with our staffers’ livelihoods after working the most stressful job in America,” Young said. “These are the same law enforcement officers who are charged with the ultimate responsibility to keep prisons and communities safe all across America.”
He said many workers are “completely distracted from their work” and focused on keeping up on debts.
Few agencies have endured a year as difficult as the federal prison system. Apart from the persistent staffing shortages, officials had to deal with sexual harassment claims and problems managing 12,567 female inmates.
In May, the bureau’s director, Mark Inch, resigned after less than a year on the job.
Last week, a congressional review found that misconduct by senior federal prison officials is “largely tolerated or ignored altogether.”
More: Congressional report: Misconduct by federal prison leaders ‘ignored’ and ‘covered up’ on a regular basis
Rojas, the union chief at the Coleman, Florida, prison complex, said up to a dozen officers were designated or threatened with a designation of being absent without leave, or “AWOL,” when they did not immediately report as the shutdown took effect just before Christmas.
“Talk about adding insult to injury,” Rojas said. “These were people, some who were on long-planned leave with their families, who had prepaid travel. The government is not going to cover those expenses.”
AWOL designations subject workers to possible disciplinary action, including suspension without pay.
Rojas said he believed prison officials were reconsidering the actions after the union intervened.
In an email response to questions Friday, a prison spokesperson said the agency did not have “specific numbers” on workers who were classified as AWOL.
“If an … employee refuses to report for work after being ordered to do so, he or she will be considered to be absent without leave (AWOL) and will be subject to any consequences that may follow from being AWOL,” the spokesperson said.
Perhaps most symbolic of the recent challenges confronting officers arrived on the prisoners’ meal trays on Christmas and New Year’s Day.
“That really p__ off our people,” Young said. “You are seeing prisoners getting steak, roast beef and Cornish hens, and you can’t put that kind of food on the table for your own family. That isn’t right.”
During the holidays, the prison bureau said, it is common practice for the institutions to “prepare a special meal or offer special items to promote morale for the inmate population because they are separated from their families.”
The agency acknowledged that inmates were served the special holiday meals, though the spokesperson said the New Year’s Day menu included roast beef – not steak.
A copy of the Coleman menu listed “grilled steak” as the main course, a meal that garnered rave reviews by some inmates.
“I been eatin like a boss all week,” Marques Demiko Brown, 20, wrote to a pen pal on the agency’s computer system New Year’s Day. “I just had steak, pie, chicken, potatoes, salad, mac nd cheese, rice, all type of s__ bro…”
Another prisoner, Terrance Johnson, 43, reported that he was ready for bed after “that dam steak got me full.”
“Steak,” the friend responded via email. “whatttt. you eating better than me today.”