Incarcerated People Are Suffering Under the Government Shutdown

It feels like I’m reading a new story about unpaid federal workers every morning as the government shutdown drags on, but one group especially stands out: correctional officers, who were among the first to be featured in the media.

Prison employees warned that working without pay was demoralizing and dangerous, and they even succeeded in placing a string of stories that made it sound like incarcerated people are living high on the hog through the shutdown.

But that’s not actually what’s happening.

In fact, incarcerated people are being harmed during the shutdown — and because they’re a vulnerable and maligned population, inmates are having trouble getting the word out about what they’re experiencing.

Meanwhile, guards are right to be frustrated about being compelled to work without pay, but the population of people they are supposed to care for is regularly exploited as a source of subminimum wage labor.

So here’s the real story: Tens of thousands of federal employees work in the federal prison system, and they’ve been deemed “essential” during the shutdown, expected to come to work even though they are not being compensated.

Some are calling in sick alongside other federal workers frustrated by the shutdown. And that’s endangering the people in their care, as well as their colleagues who have continued going to work. Remember, incarcerated people can’t just walk out if their needs are not being met.

Incarcerated people report that they’ve had visitation cut short; been unable to make calls to family; been barred from recreation and cut off from libraries, classes and other educational activities; that their mail is being delayed and withheld; and that commissaries are running out of supplies. Survivors of other shutdowns in the prison system note that they ran out of basic supplies like toilet paper.

And these aren’t the only issues. The shutdown is also affecting access to health care in prison, thanks to personnel shortages. People in federal prisons are much more likely to experience physical and mental health conditions than the general population, and the system has been indicted on many occasions for failing them.

If the prison system cannot meet basic health care needs when everyone’s being paid and coming to work, you can imagine that the situation is even worse during the shutdown, with people who normally provide health care being pressed into service as guards, making it hard to care for their patients.

People are incarcerated for a variety of reasons, including unjust ones like wrongful convictions. The federal prison system has a duty of care to them, because this population of people is entirely dependent on guards and staff for every need — from getting outside for recreation to eating dinner to taking psychiatric medication.

The longer the shutdown lasts, the greater the risks for this vulnerable population, who far from eating steak and mocking guards for being unpaid are struggling to access health care, stay in touch with loved ones, pursue educations that might help them upon release and see the sky over the recreation yard. The New York Times reports that some are even on hunger strike, though federal officials dispute this claim.

It’s easy for those who don’t count incarcerated people among their loved ones to forget about prison populations, who are kept out of sight and out of mind. But they’re suffering in the shutdown too.

Inmates should be remembered in the conversation about getting the government open again, especially because they’re less able to make their voices heard. The next time you read a story about tough working conditions for correctional officers, think about what that might mean for the people they oversee.

Photo Credit: Getty Images


David F
David F1 months ago

Clare O Beara, You are correct, "don't do the crime".
Unless the prisoner is extraordinarily dangerous, there is no reason why prisoners can't learn a trade while in prison, manufacture a product and distribute it to government or charity sources such as the military. Should have zero effect on local competition.

Only private, for-profit prisons can organize efficiently to teach and incarcerate economically.
Government prisons only work because they have massive tax draining budgets.

Loredana V
Loredana V1 months ago

This shutdown seems a tragedy for too many people. Nevertheless, very few seem to care.
Thanks for sharing.

David F
David F1 months ago

It's very clear the Democrat ruling class doesn't give a $hit about the US population being killed, robbed and poisoned from the southern border, only their personal hold on their (lucrative) power.
Build the wall and stop the upcoming Schumer shutdown.

Clare O
Clare O1 months ago

In Disaster Capitalism by Anthony Lowenstein, I read that when a town has a large prison, that gives work, but no other employer will open up in that town.

Clare O
Clare O1 months ago

I don't know if this applies to all prisons. There is no excuse for running out of basic provisions. As for visitors and phone calls, that won't harm anyone. If someone has committed crimes enough to be jailed for a long period they don't get the right to visits every day. Don't do the crime.

Debbi W
Debbi W1 months ago

There is no excuse for running out of basic supplies. The extra may cause discomfort but they can manage without them. Prisons should not have had a any cut backs, not in pay or basic supplies.

Anne M
Anne M1 months ago

Not a good scenario at all,, especially the 'no toilet paper',, - that's brutal...

Shirley S
Shirley S1 months ago

A potentially dangerous situation.

Peggy B
Peggy B1 months ago


Alea C
Alea C1 months ago

How horrible it must be to be incarcerated in a for profit prison, but I imagine these prisons are being run like the migrant camps. Viciously.