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'Never Seen Morale This Low': Correctional Officers Struggle Through Shutdown


More than half of the federal workers affected by the government shutdown are considered essential. That means they have to go to work regardless. That's true at the nation's federal prisons and for correctional officers where understaffing is already a problem, some are required to work double shifts. Justin Tarovisky is a correctional officer at the Federal Correctional Complex in Hazelton, W.Va. It's a high-security prison that includes many violent prisoners.

JUSTIN TAROVISKY: We know what we signed up for. You know, I know every day something could happen at especially the United States Penitentiary. You know, it's not an easy job by any stretch of the standard. There's a lot of daily activities that you have to monitor for, the emergencies, responding to different emergencies, the contraband that you try to retrieve, whether it's drugs, knives, weapons, whatever have you. In this facility, there has been a lot of that this year. There's been three - you know, last year, there was three homicides, and there was a lot of violence...

SIMON: Including the crime boss Whitey Bulger.

TAROVISKY: Yes. It's not an easy place to work. I've been here for almost, you know, 10 years. I've never seen morale this low at FCC Hazleton. You know, are we going to come in here and do our job? Absolutely. I mean, we've got some of the best officers that respond to emergencies in the country. I can guarantee you that. I would take these guys into any situation. But is it right to be adding all these additives into the fire - understaffed, augmentation, thrown in now a government shutdown where you've got to come to work and, oh, you're going to get paid, but we don't know when? I mean, that's not right. It's just adding to that fire, throwing the fuel on it.

SIMON: You and another prison guard, Grayson Sharp, have sued the government for failing to pay wages.

TAROVISKY: Yeah. Originally, back on the 22, I worked nine hours of overtime. With that nine hours of overtime, I did not get paid on the 22 because that was the day the shutdown started. So that's not to mention not only myself but countless officers that they've gone through that. And myself, personally, I've been mandated multiple times during the shutdown. That means when I come into work and I work my eight hours, I'm told I can't leave because we're understaffed and you have to now stay here for 16. You know, does that affect you mentally? Oh, absolutely. You know, I should be paid for what I work, especially when I'm being told I can't leave the institution.

SIMON: So let me get this straight. You not only work your eight-hour shift, but you are - more than once you're told you have to work a double shift.

TAROVISKY: Absolutely. It happens every day here at Hazelton - every day. And it's because of the short-staffing, some of the call offs and the recent strain of the shutdown, the hardships. And I keep bringing up morale. I mean, you know, I want to go home.

SIMON: Justin Tarovisky is a correctional officer at the Federal Correctional Complex in Hazelton, W.Va. Thanks so much for being with us.

TAROVISKY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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