Prison Scheduling Conflict Heads to Court

SpringCreekYardandPerimeterBy Heidi Zemach for SCN

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.

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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 hzemach@gmail.com

8 Comments

  1. SO…..when two parties go to an arbitrator, haven’t they both agreed to stand by whatever decision the arbitrator decides? And if that is true, if you happen to be the party that the arbitrator rules against, you are allowed to defy that ruling and throw a hissy fit?

  2. THANK YOU for staying on this Heidi.

  3. it was a riot, and they are way understaffed!!!! DOC are liars!!!

  4. By way of prison riots that was pretty mild. It was a number of prisoners that were confined in their cells causing property damage and personal damage to themselves. The staff on duty, understaffed as they were, did a good job managing and containing the disturbance. Without enough staff on duty to move or stop the disturbance they managed it without suffering any injuries. Good on them!

    Failing to follow the decision of an arbitrator is routine business for the State of Alaska. This practice is a legal gambit that they entertain so they can continue “business as usual” until they decide otherwise. Any decision handed down by the courts will just result in them filing an appeal and push forward with their agenda. These agents of the state entered into “binding arbitration” which by it’s very name indicates that both parties will abide by the decision of the arbitrator. They have no honor as displayed by these actions

    • “They have no honor as displayed by these actions.”

      Agree with that statement.

      I saw the ad in the Anchorage Daily News and a bit of the blurb on KTUU with Brandenburg. He made some remark, which I can’t recall exactly, about how that could have been handled a bit differently. To bad. They should quit trying to fudge the #’s to make them what they aren’t and lying outright to proceed with whatever their (Brandenburg and the other dude) agenda is.

  5. Once again Mr Polaris is not exactly correct and his bias for DOC clouds his judgement. Binding arbitration is the last legal step before trial and is considered binding unless the arbitrator made a poor decision based on an error in law. Most judges rule with the arbitrator and the decision they made stands. However either party can ask for consideration by a judge after the ruling by the arbitrator if they feel the ruling is a violation of the rule of law.

    • OK james, you may (or may not) be aware that on more than I occasion SOA DOC has failed to hold up their agreement after entering into binding arbitration. This is standard procedure for them. Arbitration is an alternative to going to court. In the end a court process will be involved. As you said the next step is court and then what??? An appeal to the next level. All this takes time during which the original agenda is pursued. If my comments sounds like I am clouded and biased you may want to read it again??

  6. Yes, thank you Heidi Zemach!