Hard-Cell Tactics

Critics charge that overcrowding and understaffing in the city's prisons puts the lives of inmates and staff at risk.

By Steve Volk
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Aug. 3, 2005

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Internal statistics provided by the Philadelphia prisons indicate inmate-inflicted injuries to staff declined by 9 percent between fiscal years 2003 and 2004-and by an additional 4.6 percent in fiscal year 2005.

In contrast, numbers obtained from the Philadelphia Police Department reflect a significant increase in the overall number of assaults in Philadelphia prisons. Aggravated assaults jumped nearly 50 percent between 2003 and 2004, when lockdown conditions began. Simple assaults, a misdemeanor, increased by around 16 percent.

The reasons for these discrepancies aren't entirely clear (see "Body Count" below), but union president Moore trumpets the police numbers. "Now you've got written proof that what we've been saying all along is true. Assaults are up," he says. "It's an unsafe environment."

The union and the city will ultimately present their arguments to an arbitrator, who will face the difficult task of deciding whether prison officials did the unthinkable: took the incredibly stressful position of corrections officer, and made it worse.

The officers' union recently filed an unfair labor practice charge with the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board, alleging that understaffing in the prison system created "unsafe working conditions."

The allegation is that "officers are being required to guard scores, or even hundreds of inmates, without sufficient backup, and without other officers to assist in cases of emergency." The union further alleges that lockdowns frustrate inmates, who are "angry and resentful," and "more likely to harm correctional officers."

The crux of their complaint revolves around a memo Leon King issued in November 2004 to the city's six prison facilities, directing them to reduce overtime and staffing.

The complaint, written by attorney Mark Featherman, recounts several instances in which the new policies made officers vulnerable. In one example a single officer supervised inmates on the floor at the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center (PICC). (It had long been mandatory that another officer monitor inmates from a control booth. But on this day, which came after King's directives, the post went unstaffed.)

In another instance the union alleges overtime restrictions forced a single officer to work the day room at the Detention Center. "That officer was assaulted by an inmate," writes Featherman, "sustaining injuries, because there was no other officer in the area to back him up."

The reductions in overtime cause more frequent lockdowns. Civilians may think inmates are locked inside their cells all the time, but under normal conditions prisoners emerge for almost 16 hours a day. They watch television or socialize in large day rooms, go to the facility's law library or work at prison jobs. They're locked in overnight and in emergency situations only. Inmates are also confined whenever there's just one officer to supervise a housing area, something COs say happens with alarming frequency under commissioner Leon King.

"They won't pay the overtime to put two officers on those housing blocks," says Moore. "So everyone suffers."

There's no date set yet for an arbitrator to hear the union's case, but officers have high hopes for the outcome. "We believe the arbitrator will rule that the city staff mandatory posts," says Featherman. "How they do that-if it means hiring more officers or instituting more overtime-would be up to the city."

Prison officials estimate they need about 120 additional officers system-wide. The union believes the number of additional officers needed exceeds 300, to go with the 1,700 already on staff.

"We've hired more officers in my administration than any previous administration," says Leon King. "And rolling restricted movement has been declining for months." The Philadelphia prisons have hired around 273 new officers in the last 12 months. Another internal prison report issued in May indicates rolling restricted movement, or "lockdown," decreased over the last six months. But some officers express skepticism over those figures.

"Housing areas were locked down all the time," says Edith Lassiter, a former CFCF officer who retired in May. "A lot of times they had one officer on a housing area. They had to lock it down because they didn't have sufficient coverage. You look at the daily roster, and it looks like you have coverage. But the [officer] wouldn't be there. How it looks on paper is completely different than the reality."

Such deep distrust goes both ways.

The prison schedules two officers for each inmate housing area. The problems come when an officer calls in sick or uses vacation time. King told PW in June he'd "end rolling restricted movement tomorrow if corrections officers would come to work."

It's an old accusation, "sick time abuse," and a serious one for Philadelphia's taxpayers. When an officer calls in sick the city gets hit for 2.5 times the normal salary: The sick officer gets his eight hours pay and the replacement nets overtime (or time and a half). But corrections officers throughout the country face charges of sick time abuse, suggesting the job could be the problem.

Labor experts believe sick time abuse raises questions about management. "If you want to generalize," says Robin Bond, president of Transition Strategies, an employment law firm in Wayne, "people abuse sick time when they feel they're being treated unfairly. One way of getting back at their employer is getting paid for time they're not working. I'm angry, and I can't be aggressive, but I can be passive-aggressive."

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