Union president voices correctional officers’ concerns amid rising cumulative case count

Department of Corrections maintains state is working to keep staff and inmates safe

More than half of Juneau’s confirmed COVID-19 cases are tied to Lemon Creek Correctional Center staff and their family members.

There are concerns that correctional officers of Alaska aren’t being supported by their department, said Randy McLellan, president of the Alaska Correctional Officers Association.

“To this point, there’s just a complete lack of confidence in the leadership,” McLellan said, in a phone interview. “They’re not forthright with their information. There’s officers that are nervous about being exposed, they’re nervous about bringing it back to their families.”

To the contrary, the Department of Corrections is doing everything to support its staff, said DOC public information officer Sarah Gallagher in an email.

“DOC has made every effort to communicate with all staff. DOC built a dedicated COVID-19 website (https://doc.alaska.gov/covid-19) that is updated as new information becomes available. There is also a dedicated COVID-19 email address on that page where questions can be submitted,” Gallagher said. “DOC holds regular town halls with all staff and ensures all DOC employees receive press releases at the same time as the media. In addition, Commissioner (Nancy) Dahlstrom also sends out informational emails to all DOC (employees) when there are notable developments in the situation.”

Still, the perception that communication with the staff of DOC facilities lags behind what is desirable persists.

“I know some folks who work there. I really appreciate the protocols and procedures. But some of it might not be getting all the way down the chain to the people who work there. The communication to those officers might be not as good as you think,” said City and Borough of Juneau Assembly member Maria Gladziszewski during an Assembly meeting with Alaska’s chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink, on May 18. “I heard from several — they didn’t know about the cases, the inmates heard about them first, that sort of thing. My understanding is that they can’t check email unless they’re on break, and they may not get around to it for 12 hours.”

Unready for the storm?

McLellan said ACOA is deeply concerned with both the DOC’s preparations and its ongoing handling of the coronavirus outbreak.

“Early on, the state didn’t have a plan. They didn’t take it seriously. It was really ACOA that started poking questions and prompting them and lighting a fire under them,” McLellan said.

DOC disagrees strenuously with this position.

“DOC began preparing for this pandemic long before the virus was even in Alaska and continues to take the crisis seriously,” Gallagher said.

Screening of inmates being booked into DOC facilities began on Feb. 2, Gallagher said. Since then, the DOC has carried out tabletop exercises, published an internal clinical care guide and published a full departmental health plan, among other steps designed to prepare for spread of the coronavirus, Gallagher said.

“The Department was pleased to see that the safeguards already put in place in Alaska met and in some cases exceeded the standards issued by the CDC. As a department, we have suspended visiting, volunteers and non-essential contractors. We continue to screen everyone who enters our facilities, staff or inmate. We continue to screen inmates prior to transport,” Gallagher said. “All of these measures were put into place prior to our first case within the department, so the claim that DOC had no effective implementation measures or plans in place is false.”

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence

LCCC has undergone broad testing as of last week, according to a CBJ news release. As of Monday afternoon, 62 officers and 165 inmates had been tested, Zink said. So far, only one officer has come back positive and no inmates, although more than 100 inmate tests are still pending.

But it’s not enough, McLellan said.

“Personally, I think they should test everyone statewide in these facilities,” McLellan said. “For corrections facilities, social distancing is not an option like it is for the public.”

As the crisis began broadening, McLellan said, many of those entering the facilities, either for work or incarceration, had their temperature taken using thermometers that had no plastic applicator to prevent cross-contamination, and staff relied instead on wiping down the thermometer with alcohol wipes after each use.

“Early on, when screening began, there were some supply shortages within DOC and the state with items such as the plastic covers for thermometers,” Gallagher said. “During that time, staff employed the medically appropriate protocol of wiping down oral thermometers with alcohol wipes between each use. We began replacing oral thermometers immediately with temporal or no-touch thermometers.”

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Questions were also raised about the efficacy of testing methods; many of the tests performed were self-administered, McLellan said.

“Medically monitored, self-administered tests were completed at LCCC upon the recommendation of public health officials and the state epidemiology team,” Gallagher said. “As of May 5, the CDC supports the use of self-administered tests because they are considered equally effective and they reduce exposure for health care workers.”

While things such as a project employing inmates to make PPE were positive changes, McLellan said that the state needs to do more testing and disseminate information more effectively to help manage the crisis.

“The DOC cannot successfully adhere to all the governor’s COVID-19 mandates and social distancing is simply not possible within a prison,” McLellan said in a news release from the ACOA on Tuesday. “Aware of the risks, correctional officers continue to perform their duty with dedication and courage, even in facilities with confirmed cases of COVID-19.”

Hazard pay, hazardous practices?

Concerns from the ACOA also abound about other practices

“Due to the dangers COVID-19 presents, the DOC determined that inmate workers deserved a 25-80% pay increase, yet correctional officers, who put their lives on the line to keep Alaskans safe, have been denied any additional hazard pay compensation,” McLellan said in a release.

“That the DOC would choose to first recognize those incarcerated for committing crimes against Alaskans, and not correctional officers working inside those same facilities, is extremely disappointing.”

DOC offered an explanation for the apparent dichotomy — DOC needed workers to meet rapidly spun-up requirements for increased cleaning regimens, while employee hazard pay is controlled by a different department

“Inmate cleaning crews and inmates who are part of the mask production team did receive increased pay as a method to incentivize participation. Inmate jobs are voluntary, and due to the need for increased environmental cleaning, and the need for all staff and inmates to have masks — DOC needed to hire more inmate workers quickly,” Gallagher said. “Both of these occupations contribute to the health and safety of everyone who lives and works in our institutions. Consideration for additional employee hazard pay is a determination that is made in the Department of Administration, Division of Personnel & Labor Relations, not DOC.”

Corrections officers need the support of the public and of the state government for their essential work, McLellan said.

“The State knows that correctional officers and their families are being exposed to this highly contagious virus at work, jeopardizing their lives and the lives of their loved ones,” McLellan said. “They’re not just first responders, they’re the only responders.”

• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at 757.621.1197 or mlockett@juneauempire.com.