Author, Expert & Speaker

As I’m writing this post, we are in the twenty-ninth day of the government shutdown. The passionate truth is the country has a limping, underfunded government that is impacting people hard. Putting the political causes aside, what matters now are the short- and long-term effects on individuals and families of eight hundred thousand government workers, countless government contractors, and thousands of prisoners. The tone and tenor of the national conversation is rising, and for good reasons. We’ve all seen and read about the plight of furloughed federal employees and workers forced to do their jobs with back pay promised but on no fixed schedule.

The resulting attrition rate of the federal work force manifests itself with a broad brush, including the closure of government-run museums, the suspension of government service contracts, and the thinning of health and safety social services—including air traffic controllers who have to be right 100 percent of the time.

The media is exposing the slice-of-life horror stories of people and families stretching to stay afloat financially until the shutdown ends. For such times our founders foresaw the importance of a robust integration of the press for the transparent governing of this country. The First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom . . . of the press.” No ambiguity there. Once branches of government fail to act equally and with checks and balances, it’s the press that cracks the facts open above the smoke and mirrors of politics, the battle for power, and the resultant greed.

Federal Inmates Are in a Separate Impact Class

Human quality of life is measured differently for the incarcerated. On the inside, loss of freedom is not a cliché. And while prisons are necessary to contain aberrance and to hopefully rehabilitate, in times of untoward external stress, prison rule makers expectedly cloister to ponder ways to tighten tactics and measures to keep prisons safer.[1] Now is such a time of stress, brought about by cutbacks in prison staff and operations.

According to the Marshall Project, federal guards responsible for keeping the nation and prisons safe are

laboring without pay. Because the federal Bureau of Prisons is operating without funding, it has furloughed up to half of its 36,000-person staff, including many who provide therapeutic programs for prisoners and other services considered not to be “essential.” And the agency is asking its remaining employees to keep working unpaid, focusing on maintaining security even if that’s not usually their primary job.

Understaffed prison facilities, where some are forced to work without pay, can cause correctional officers (COs) and inmates to behave unpredictably. I believe inmates in federal prisons are stuck in a uniquely weird shutdown situation. This is because the Board of Prisons (BOP) is operating in schizophrenic mode. The usual mode of operation is paranoia, and rightfully so—managing the forced incarceration of people is inherently dangerous.

Prisons are dangerous places to work and live. They are islands of constant uncertainty about inmates’ conduct. The results are layered laws, regulations, and rules that define and refine human freedoms, which, of course, is no mean task. Jails and prisons are necessarily repressive, and the collective inmate counterbalance is a constant undertow of fierce human energy that can erupt into violence in an instant.

The 1971 uprising of inmates at New York’s Attica Correctional Facility is a blueprint for contemporary prison uprisings as a result of government repression of inmates’ basic human needs. Like the tragedy of Attica, which was driven by the misguided political aspirations of then governor Nelson Rockefeller, recent prison strikes across the country are grounded in state and federal governments’ clamping down to maintain prison slavery conditions as a means to control behaviors.

During my twenty-five-month term in the California prison system, I experienced COs who liked being extra tough and emotionally detached from engaging with inmates. I witnessed how, when under stressful conditions, people who have power over other people can and will take out their anger and frustrations on inmates. COs take revenge on inmates when news hits the yard of a correctional officer anywhere within the prison system[2] being injured or killed in his or her role within the system. The revenge—manifesting in lockdowns, reduction of yard time, restrictions on activities, and extreme bullying—renders inmates more powerless and voiceless than they are under ordinary situations. If one protests, the standard response from COs is a heavily laden sarcastic reply of “if you don’t like it, don’t come to prison.”

The Psychology of Imprisonment

The 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE), conducted at Stanford University and conceived by Philip Zimbardo, PhD, highlights the transformation of regular, good people who do bad or evil acts. The experiment focused on the psychology of imprisonment by using a mock prison situation. While controversial in its experimental process of using graduate students to take the roles of COs and inmates, the SPE is the most accurate depiction I have read of the dynamics of the CO/inmate relationship by individuals who never spent time in lockup. 

According to Zimbardo’s book The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil,

This experiment has emerged as a powerful illustration of the potentially toxic impact of bad systems and bad situations in making good people behave in pathological ways that are alien to their nature. . . .The line between Good and Evil, once thought to be impermeable, proved instead to be permeable.

COs’ Stress in the Workplace Equates to Inmate Suppression

Stress in the workplace hits inmates with a double whammy.

Whammy No. 1

One powerful and unpleasant effect of a government shutdown is the iron hand of control slamming down the federal prison populations. Inmates are easy targets for situations beyond their control. Federal prison workers are frustrated with the government shutdown, and that frustration can be targeted against inmates, who will retaliate against the system with protests and hunger strikes—just like at Attica.[3]

This short CNN clip  illustrates how the shutdown is affecting federal prisons, which includes the use of untrained staff COs’ filling in for regular prison personnel. In one New York prison, visitation rights were terminated due to lack of staffing. Such reduction in services turns up the heat on prisoners’ lives and can lead to dangerous situations impacting both the guards and the inmates.

The repressive power of an enforcer group over a powerless group has predictable causes and effects. It’s also a phenomenon reported about by the American Psychological Association (APA) in Stress in the Workplace.  The APA’s report centers around the “feeling of being powerless [as being] a universal cause of job stress.” The work of secretaries, medical interns, and police officers is some of the most highly stressful because these workers “need to respond to others’ demands and timetables, with little control over events.” Have you ever been stressed out to the point of being particularly insensitive to your child, a friend, your dog?

For a rundown of the broad impact of the shutdown, see the January 11, 2019, APA press release: Government Shutdown Increasing Stress on Federal Workers, Contractors, Families, APA Says.[4] Unsurprisingly, the APA notes that

[its] annual Stress in America survey has shown that money is a common source of stress for many Americans. As the shutdown drags on, the uncertainty felt by federal employees may lead to stress and anxiety, which can increase the likelihood of unhealthy behaviors and even lead to negative health consequences. 

The bad morale developing in federal correctional facilities is well illustrated in this January 10, 2019, Washington Post article and film clip, which illustrate the volatile situations developing inside the prisons and the reaction of inmates to the new climate caused by the shutdown.

Whammy No. 2

The two halves of the contemporary government shutdown of prison operations—stress emanating from prison staff and implementation of the First Step Act criminal justice reform law signed in December 2018—are out of sync with resultant circumstances. On one hand, there are fewer prison guards, and on the other hand, the matter of federal prisoners who are benefitting from the new law and were released after last month’s passage of the First Step Act is mired in uncertainty.

The pernicious reach of the shutdown manifests in unexpected ways. The bipartisan criminal justice and prison reform law signed by the president is aimed at reducing the number of nonviolent offenders in federal prisons. And, as reported by the New York Times on January 16, 2019,

One of the first steps in the law is to establish a system for evaluating inmates to determine which ones could be released early without threatening public safety. Under the law, an arm of the Justice Department has until Jan. 21 [2019] to help establish a committee tasked with creating that system.

Unless the shutdown ends soon, the federal inmates who are intended to benefit from the First Step Act are heading for a limbo of delays and red tape. The end result will be an incalculable delay in the processing of their early releases because personnel are not staffing positions to implement the law. According to the New York Times’ report,

 a Justice Department spokesman, and Sheila Jerusalem, a spokeswoman for the National Institute of Justice, declined to answer questions about whether the deadlines would be met. [Because of the shutdown,] the only Justice Department employees [that are] authorized to work during a shutdown [are] those specifically authorized to work on urgent matters, such as national security.

According to a report by the Marshall Project dated January 7, 2019,

inmates who are terminally ill and awaiting “compassionate release” to die at home with their families now must wait even longer. [During the shutdown,] their applications are going unread [and are not being processed.] And in at least one instance, a prison had to stop ordering food and toiletries for prisoners to purchase at [the] commissary.


The plenary, dark reach of the government shutdown impacts free citizens, families, business operations, and federal inmates. The shutdown hits federal prisoners, their families, and their futures particularly hard. This situation runs the risk of inflaming the hostile living environments inherent in our jails and prisons by disrupting the delicate homeostasis of prison populations. The lessons of Attica and subsequent contemporary prison uprisings are muted by the shutdown, which is wrong, insane, and potentially dangerous.

I always welcome your comments and insights.

Image courtesy of

[1] The first priority for safety is always prison administrators and staff, followed by the safety of inmates.

[2] In California, there are thirty-three adult prisons.

[3] As I wrote in a previous post, “The prison conditions that led to the 1971 Attica prison uprising remain rife in today’s prisons. Overcrowding, poor healthcare, lousy food, racism, and poorly trained prison personnel churn within the caldrons of our prisons. Add to the brew elements of contrived inmate humiliation and shame, as well as lack of education and job training, and a single spark will blow the top off. That’s the story of Attica forty-five years ago. That’s the reality now.”

[4] One example of impact is stated by APA president Rosie Phillips Davis, PhD: “Furthermore, American Indians and Alaska Natives will start to lose access to services such [as] primary, mental health and behavioral health services provided by the Indian Health Services and other agencies, and domestic violence shelters are also facing possible shortfalls, as the Department of Justice has indicated uncertainty about the availability of funds after January 18.”

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