Federal Prison Shuts Down Commissary Hours For Facilities Workers
Approximately 140 inmates were denied the opportunity to purchase necessary commissary items in an apparent conflict between Corrections Officers, their labor union and prison administrators this past January. Beginning with the New Year, CEOs working in the commissary at FCI Elkton (OH) eliminated late afternoon and evening hours, thus omitting the only times when inmates employed in the facilities departments were allowed to shop. Since prison regulations forbid inmates from engaging in any “unofficial” activities during work hours, workers were left with no other option than to risk purchases during their normal meal times and sacrifice required nutrition. Bear in mind, BOP prisoners are issued very little and all shortcomings must be supplemented out of their own pockets. Simple, basic needs including postage stamps, over the counter medications like allergy pills and cough syrup, deodorant, reading glasses, shaving cream, so-called “additional” clothing such as shoelaces, even toothbrushes and coffee must be bought at over-inflated prices out of seriously under market wages. Union negotiations are said to have forced these changes after months of talks, yet without any real thought or concern to the effects it would cause for those impacted most - prisoners.
I was one of the inmates caught up in the battle between staff and administrators. I/we we're both disgusted and angry that prisoners fundamental needs were so carelessly and haphazardly abandoned in the decision to placate the demands of all too powerful correction officers Union. Surely this was a violation of our constitutional right and not a “privilege” as some have argued. It must be evident to all that hygiene, basic medications in the freedom to communicate with loved ones and attorneys represent crucial Liberties to be insured and protected by this institution regardless of Union disputes, labor contracts or prison politics. To add insult to injury, union workers who share a schedule similar to that of facilities where granted a separate time slot specific to their commissary needs, suggesting a priority for their Department by prison officials. many weeks passed with no response from the administration to inmates in formal request for a reasonable and fair solution.
At the suggestion of certain staff members, facility workers were encouraged to join together in their demands for a formal resolution. Their support cannot be underestimated, for they risked potential backlash from their own supervisors and advising us. Their honesty and Candor in recognizing the injustices of prison life was a welcome reminder that there are those within the system trying to do the “right” thing. Emboldened by their recommendations, facilities inmates syndicated the series of filings seeking administrative remedy through the prison's official grievance procedure. We were able to openly discuss our options while at work, agree upon being proactive and decide who amongst us were willing to be involved. Workers then submitted BP-8 grievance forms to their superiors and/or department heads, as well as utilizing prison email to inform operation staff and the warden of their concerns. it is not know how many inmates participated in this semi organized campaign, but within 7 to 10 days of our initial filings workers were assigned a time slot to shop. Please note, conflicts still exist. Early AM inmates who must report to work have little or no time to eat breakfast and complete other tasks such as clothing and linen exchanges, legal mail, receipt of the weekly distributions of toilet paper, Etc. And it was a slow process to gain the attention of the prison officials, one which took nearly 3 months before receiving any formal confirmation regarding the situation ( in a bulletin dated 22 Mar. 2017). But it got resolved.
Now my brothers and sisters Behind Bars, let me encourage you - do your homework, educate yourself, be aware of your rights, learn how the system works and take it upon yourself to approach your problems from the basis of knowledge. And when faced with a challenge or a systemic wrong perpetrated on you by the PIC, take full advantage of the official channels available to inmates. Petitions, strikes, demonstrations and protests can and do happen. Moreover, there are times when these actions may be the only way to lift our demands to those in power and give voice to our Collective concerns. However, let them be a last resort, not the first. There is one thing I've learned about the BOP during my time and side, it's that they don't like paper and forms. They like being required to talk to us even less. Use this as your weapon and beat them with their own system. And be realistic in your expectations. Know that administrators screw up all the time, especially Bureau of Prisons administrators. Expected and give them an opportunity to fix it. Chances are they haven't even considered the ramifications of their decisions.
Most importantly, recognize that we are our own worst enemies when we allow apathy and frustration to overcome our Common Sense. Far too many inmates I have spoken with are all too willing to complain, yet they refused to lift a finger in their own defense. Talk to each other - wisely, cautiously and calmly. Organize, coordinate and devise a strategy. There is power in the many, numbers matter, we matter when we work together for the benefit of all. Institutions are often blind animals. It is our responsibility to each other to open the eyes of our keepers to us as human beings, and you cannot accomplish that if you are bitter and yelling and chaotic. Give the system a chance to work and try it their way. You might be surprised by the results one can achieve with enough patient, reasoned persistence. Remember, the revolution will come soon enough.
-W. E. Roberts, prisoner FCI Elkton (OH) and present/future activist for prison rights and the abolition of prisons throughout the world.