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How The Government Shutdown Is Affecting The Federal Bureau Of Prisons


Some federal workers are suing over the government shutdown, saying they're being illegally forced to work without pay. The American Federation of Government Employees, one of the biggest unions, has joined the suit. NPR's Martin Kaste called workers with the Federal Bureau of Prisons to see how they're coping.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Heidi Burakiewicz is one of the lawyers on this new lawsuit. And she says it's unreasonable what workers in federal prisons are having to put up with.

HEIDI BURAKIEWICZ: This is a situation that the government is putting these people in, and it's through no fault of their own.

KASTE: This is a contingency lawsuit. Her firm gets paid if there's a settlement. But she says the situation is hard for prison workers. Pretty much everybody assigned to a corrections facility, not just the guards, is considered essential and has to keep showing up for work.

BURAKIEWICZ: It's a horrible situation for them to be in because they don't know when they're going to get their next paycheck.

KASTE: To be clear, Bureau of Prisons employees did just get paid a couple of days ago. The real concern is about the next paycheck in two weeks. Angie Acklin is a case manager at the Federal Correctional Institution in Aliceville, Ala. She's trying to pay off medical bills from last year. And she says a delayed paycheck will not help her.

ANGIE ACKLIN: It may hurt me if I get so far behind that, you know, I'm owing a lot more money than they feel I should be.

KASTE: The they she's talking about there is the Bureau of Prisons. That's because the government checks prison employees' credit reports to make sure that they're not so deep in debt that they might be susceptible to bribes. Acklin hopes that the shutdown won't force her to miss a debt payment right before her next review, which is coming up soon.

ACKLIN: Hopefully it can be explained with, well, the government shut down, so I couldn't make this payment because we weren't getting paid.

KASTE: Right now, the prison workers most affected are those who aren't getting their travel expenses reimbursed. Robert Richards is one of them. A hurricane hit the prison where he works in Florida, so he's been working in Mississippi. He's out of pocket on those travel costs as long as this shutdown continues. But he's also torn by the bigger political situation and President Trump's insistence on money for the border wall.

ROBERT RICHARDS: I fully believe in border security. I do. And I'm willing to make a sacrifice for a time, but I can't do it forever.

KASTE: Richards says the previous short government shutdowns have led to a certain complacency.

RICHARDS: We've had it before, never had a missed check. But this one, we're kind of getting the feeling that this may last a little bit longer.

KASTE: He's starting to think that he may not see his next paycheck until February. And he says the mood among his fellow corrections officers is, quote, "doom and gloom." Martin Kaste, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BASTIEN KEB'S "PICK UP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.