Union Calls For More Prison Staff

“If we don’t recognize the heroes of this pandemic, we will run out of heroes,” said Kenneth Hayward, a correction officer at the Garner Correctional Institution in Newtown, during a virtual news conference held by his union Tuesday.

Three locals of AFSCME Council 4, representing an estimated 75% of unionized state Department of Correction staff members, held the news conference to call attention to staffing shortages that they say are forcing them to work mandatory 16-hour days and to suffer sleep deprivation.

The department had 406 staff vacancies, about 9.5%, as of July 16, according to a department document supplied by the union during the news conference.

A July 26 memo from William Mulligan, the deputy commissioner of the department, to Commissioner Angel Quiros, shows that 397 staff members are eligible to retire by next July 1.

“Right now, no one is going to work for eight hours,” said Brian Larson, a correction officer at the Manson Youth Institution in Cheshire.

When an employee has to work a 16-hour day, Larson said, after accounting for time spent handling personal tasks, the person may end up getting 4½ hours of sleep — “only to repeat the process three days in a row,” he said.

PRISON STAFFING

VACANCIES: 406 STATEWIDE AS OF JULY 26.

RETIREMENTS: AS MANY AS 397 BY NEXT JULY 1.

RESULT: MANDATORY OVERTIME, OFTEN RESULTING IN 16-HOUR DAYS.

ACTION: TRAINING ACADEMY TO GRADUATE 90 CORRECTION OFFICERS IN NOVEMBER, WITH TWO OTHER TRAINING CLASSES TO START THIS FALL.

“Staff shortages are risky for staff,” said Michael Vargo, the president of AFSCME Local 1565. “There is more chance for injury on the job and volatile situations to break out.”

But the department said in a statement that it has been planning for heavy retirements for more than two years as a result of pension changes that take effect next year.

The department said its training academy is expected to graduate a class of 90 new correction officers in early November, with additional classes scheduled to start in early October and December, the latter with 100 recruits. Moreover, the closure of the Radgowski building at the Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Center in Montville will result in reassignment of 110 staff members, the department said.

“The current staffing percentages are not unusual,” the department added.

Since November, Hayward said, 21 staff members have quit jobs at Garner, which specializes in treatment of male inmates with mental health problems.

“I’ve never seen this before,” he said, adding that state jobs are desirable in many ways, with good benefits. He acknowledged that some of the staff members who have left went to the state police.

Collin Provost, the president of AFSCME Local 391, called it “unsustainable” for prison staff members to continue to work 16-hour shifts in a dangerous job “with high rates of mental health stressors.”

Vargo complained that there has been “little to no movement” in union contract negotiations. “And our members have not received hazard pay even though our state received federal funds intended for this purpose,” he added.

Amanda Tower, a correction officer at the MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution in Suffield, said Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration has been refusing to budge in the contract talks, “even asking for concessions from employees who they hailed as heroes, who kept critical services operating 24/7 during a global public health crisis.”

Vargo said more 1,400 department staff members have tested positive for COVID-19, while the department put the number at nearly 1,800. Most have recovered, with 34 staff members listed Tuesday as “recovering” from the disease in online state statistics.

The department recently experienced its first staff death from COVID-19. But it wasn’t clear whether the correction officer who died — Quentin Foster, 45, who was assigned to the Willard-Cybulski Correctional Institution in Enfield — contracted the disease on the job.

From www.journalinquirer.com