Inmate death, shutdown leave tensions high at federal prison in Mich.
Prisoners are still being paid for their work, while COs stand to miss their second paycheck on Friday
By Darcie Moran
The Ann Arbor News, Mich.
MILAN, Mich. — A prisoner recently joked, "I make more money than you do right now," says corrections officer Matthew Ruebush.
But after 33 days working without pay at the federal prison in Milan, about 15 miles south of Ann Arbor, Ruebush isn’t amused.
"That's funny and all, but during holidays we still fed you Cornish game hen and … all this other fancy food that you got to eat," he said. "You're getting paid more than I do and I can't guarantee my son anything right now."
Prisoners are still being paid for their work in the UNICOR prison factory, while corrections officers, required to keep working, stand to miss their second paycheck on Friday if no resolution is reached in the month-long government shutdown.
It’s left morale pretty low at the prison at an already tense time, just weeks after a prisoner was beaten to death at the low-security facility, which houses an estimated 1,340 offenders.
There have been assaults, too, Ruebush said, and it’s hard to distinguish whether or not it’s tied to changes in inmate attitudes during the shutdown.
Workers already face a dangerous job. Now they have to go home and tell their loved ones they can’t pay for certain things, said corrections officer Bruce Campbell. The distraction of not knowing when their next pay check is coming raises more concerns for safety.
“When you’re worried constantly about, ‘Am I behind on this car? How long is it going to take? Are they going to repossess my stuff?’ I imagine staff are at their wit’s end,” he said.
An estimated 800,000 federal government employees are caught up in the longest shutdown in U.S. history, which began Dec. 22, 2018, over funding for President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall.
Some workers are furloughed, while others have been forced to work without pay with the promise they’ll receive back pay when the government reopens.
About 97 percent of the nearly 36,360 Federal Bureau of Prisons staffers fall in the latter category, according to an email from the Federal Bureau of Prisons' office of public affairs.
The promise for back pay means little right now to workers, such as Campbell and Ruebush, both the sole providers for their families.
Campbell is the father of two teenagers with a 40-minute commute to work. Ruebush is a father of a 5-year-old and the new owner of a pit bull-Labrador puppy.
Campbell is dipping into his savings.
His mortgage is due at the end of next week. Weekly date nights with his wife have been cancelled. He worries what late payments could do to his position, which requires past debts be paid. And he's nervous to take a second job - it must be prison-approved and, even if he gets one, he risks skipping it for mandated overtime.
Should he miss his paycheck Friday, Campbell said he'll start having to make hard choices - whether to spend money on gas to get to a job he isn't getting paid for or to take days off and face possible discipline.
"There's guys right now that are already down and out," he said. "They miss another paycheck, they won't be able to come to work. They won't have the money."
Ruebush, a veteran, took a few steps to prepare for the shutdown. He got a low-interest credit card and saved up some money.
Still, when the shutdown hit, he contacted his son's school about the cost of school lunches and last week called about a plan for his mortgage.
Federal prison worker Matthew Ruebush is shown with his family.
He and his wife pick up only essentials at the grocery store: milk, cheese, bread and meat. It’s a long drive to the soup kitchen, he said. He couldn’t imagine paying for child care right now.
He signed up to be an Uber driver, and applied to work in security at the University of Michigan. He worries for coworkers who live paycheck-to-paycheck.
That’s 78 percent of Americans, according to a 2017 study by CareerBuilder.
Many federal law enforcement employees are in that category, National Council of Prison Locals President Eric Young said in a press release by the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1741.
“During this administration, those same employees have faced hiring freezes, budget cuts, and staffing reductions, creating a severe understaffing crisis throughout the country," he said in the release.
The shutdown is putting lives at risk both in and outside the Milan institution and detention center, said Matthew Ritzman, president of Local 1741 and a therapist at the prison.
Workers also aren’t volunteering for overtime as much, resulting in more frequent mandated 16-hour shifts.
To boost morale, the union planned a luncheon last week. Ritzman and others offered appreciation for organizations like JR's Hometown Grill and Pub, which they say offered discounts for federal employees.
Others have offered similar deals and Ann Arbor’s city council voted this week to defer federal worker’s payments for at least 60 days after the shutdown ends. The state also issued food assistance benefits early this month.
Though two competing proposals are on the table Thursday to temporarily or permanently end the shutdown, there’s little faith those will move forward, the New York Times reports.
Federal prison corrections officer Bruce Campbell
There’s no end in sight and neither political party is doing the right thing, said Campbell.
"You can't keep the American people hostage," he said. "You can't keep your workforce hostage over your disagreement."
Ruebush goes to the VA to deal with some pent-up anxiety, he said. Otherwise, the greatest calming for his anger and anxiety has been falling asleep on the couch with his new puppy, Ares.
He’s offered other workers advice on dealing with the shutdown. A 10-year veteran of military corrections, he says its a “make or break point” for the facility.
"We work in a dangerous environment and when it becomes a one-for-one, 'I'm only taking care of myself' or 'I don’t care because I'm not getting paid, we're not doing anything,' that can be scary," he said.
“I don’t want to look forward to what might happen if we don’t all stay together.”
©2019 The Ann Arbor News, Mich.