CRANSTON, RI – Officials from the R.I. Department of Corrections will be traveling to Washington, D.C., on Monday to meet with lawyers from the federal government over an investigation into hiring practices at the prison that may be unfair to minority candidates, the Target 12 Investigators have learned.
Susan Lamkins, RIDOC’s chief of information, said in an email that a “small group” from the agency will be meeting with officials from the U.S. Department of Justice.
“The Department of Justice has informed us that they have some concerns about the grading mechanism for the written and video exams that our agency has used as part of the hiring process for correctional officers and indicated its intention to file suit,” Lamkins wrote. “As a result we have placed our current selection process on hold until further notice.”
Lamkins said they were notified of the investigation by the DOJ on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.
One week after officials at the state’s prison were notified of the probe, A.T. Wall – RIDOC’s director – told stunned lawmakers of the investigation during testimony before the House Finance Committee.
“There is another issue that has recently arisen that I wanted to bring to your attention,” Wall told the committee chaired by state Rep. Helio Melo, D-East Providence.
Wall said department officials “don’t know what to expect” when they meet with members of the Justice Department next week.
“There is a belief on the part of the Justice Department that the outcome of those exams, not the intent but the outcome, has disproportionately and adversely affected African American and Hispanic candidates,” Wall said. “Frankly we were surprised and dismayed; our own findings have not yielded those outcomes.”
RIDOC officials declined to give an interview or provide any letter from the Department of Justice that would shed more light on the investigation.
But the Rhode Island prison system is not the only public safety office around that country that has faced scrutiny from the federal government for their minority hiring practices.
In September, the Justice Department found the fire department in Austin, Texas, discriminated against African American and Hispanic applicants. In 2012, officials found similar practices within the Baltimore County police and fire departments.
Baltimore was fined $475,000 and had to reshape its hiring practices. The Austin case is still ongoing.
In Rhode Island, Lamkins said 2,600 people applied to become a correctional officer at the prison in the most recent round of hires this year. From that group the department was hoping to cull 60 people from the academy to work at the Adult Correctional Institution.
Wall told lawmakers he has put the entire class on hold until the issue is resolved.
“The reason I am raising it is we do think there is a distinct possibly there will be fiscal ramifications coming out of the concern on the part of the Justice Department,” said Wall.
He explained the department may need to spend a substantial amount of money to revamp its testing process and that until new recruits are hired, the department will need to spend money on overtime to fill vacant shifts.
“The cost of hiring a new correctional officer is less than the cost of paying overtime,” he said.
The Justice Department may also levy fines against the state if they find RIDOC’s testing process was unfair to minority candidates.
Responding to a records request, prison officials said there are 911 correctional officers at the ACI, and of those 175 – or 19% – are minorities.
Wall told lawmakers correction officials would be traveling to Washington with a representative from Attorney General Peter Kilmartin’s office. Amy Kempe, spokesperson for the attorney general, declined to comment.
A spokesperson for the Department of Justice also declined comment.