The question of whether an arbitrator to a collective bargaining agreement has the authority to order the Alaska Department of Corrections to return to its former method of scheduling prison correctional officer’s shifts is heading to the Alaska Superior Court. It’s the latest legal actions taken in an ongoing dispute between the Alaska Correctional Officers’ Association and the Alaska Department of Corrections over scheduling changes that took effect May 12th, 2012. Collective Bargaining Agreement Arbitrator Janet Gaunt ruled in the officers union’s favor on April 20th 2013, and ordered that DOC immediately change back to the “8’s” shift schedule, and make each affected employee whole.
The State of Alaska is contesting arbitrator Gaunt’s authority to do that, however. On August 9th the state filed a “Complaint to Vacate” the award filings dated April 20th, May 16th and August 5th. DOC’s grounds are that the orders violate the state’s public policy, were the result of gross error, and exceed the arbitrator’s authority. DOC is the public agency responsible for maintaining the correctional institutions within the state and for employing the corrections officers and determining their schedules, the legal document states. Last May the agency ordered staff schedule changes in seven of the 12 state facilities in order to conserve state funds and safely and effectively provide correctional services for the benefit of convicted criminals, its faculty, staff and the public, it continues.
The issue affects Spring Creek Correctional Center in Seward, Alaska’s maximum security prison. The DOC has sought to hire replacements for the more than 30 correctional officers for the Seward facility for more than a year. It reduced the prison population when it could not fill its staffing guidelines. Many officers who lived here, and some who commuted from Anchorage, left Spring Creek to work at Goose Creek, the new medium-security facility in Mat Su Valley. The new eight-hour on, eight off schedule means prison employees would have had to commute about four to six hours a day unless they stayed or relocated here. Prior to the change, the COs worked extended shifts and every other week almost half of them commuted home to spend their week off with their families.
The troubles have escalated, with increasing media attention prompted by overcrowding at the Anchorage Jail, a prisoner rebellion at Spring Creek earlier this month, and the serious beating of seasoned correctional officer Kim Spaulding by three Spring Creek inmates last October.
Earlier this month, a group of inmates locked in a special security wing as a punishment, created a disturbance in the unit that lasted all night, and resulted in flooding and considerable damage to the porcelain toilets, sinks, and windows. Six inmates also were injured in the lengthy melee, according to ACOA. DOC officials later said they had waited until morning to end the “disturbance” when a new duty shift would arrive. They said inmates had become upset for being asked to straighten up their cells for inspection.
The union took out a full page ad in the Anchorage Daily News this Sunday on behalf of their 850 correctional officers, pointing to what ACOA called the “Seward uprising” and charging that the department of corrections is being mismanaged, that Alaska prisons are now overcrowded and understaffed, and that it is endangering the lives of Alaskans. The ad contests DOC’s characterization that the occurrence at Spring Creek incident was merely a “minor disturbance” and that no one was injured. In fact, six people received medical care at the center clinic, the union said. DOC official’s recent media claims that the state prisons are “fully staffed,” is only true when all corrections officers currently employed by the state are included in the count, but not when the numbers actually on duty at a particular time or place are tallied, ACOA said.
Heidi Zemach can be reached at email@example.com