Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Alaska Correctional Officers Association Votes "No Confidence" Against DOC Chief Joe Schmidt; Schmidt Claims Political And Contractual Maneuvering

On Tuesday April 22nd, 2008, members of the Alaska Correctional Officers Association (ACOA) passed a "vote of no confidence" against Department of Corrections Commissioner Joe Schmidt (pictured at left), 514-19. It was the first of its kind, as far as they knew. Full story published in the Anchorage Daily News and aired on KTUU Channel 2 and KTVA Channel 11.

ACOA alleges that Schmidt has cut staff to dangerous levels in the prisons and covered up medical issues in the jails, including the spread of a contagious bacterial infection, MRSA, among prisoners and even guards.

Shortly after the vote was tallied, Schmidt held his own press conference in which he said the union was upset about his lack of tolerance for infractions and his firings and disciplinary actions. He said the allegations by the union are false and the union was looking to unsettle him in future contract negotiations.

In Schmidt's first year as commissioner, in 2007, there were 49 internal investigations of prison guards. Half resulted in disciplinary action, four resulted in terminations and another four people left their jobs voluntarily. He would not give details about the problems, citing personnel rules. "We are doing the right thing. We are going to be trustworthy. And, if I have to go through this until my last day, then that's what I'm going to do," he said of his efforts to make the department more accountable to the public. "Ethics and honesty is what we are about."

When Gov. Sarah Palin named Schmidt to run the prisons department in November 2006, union members supported her choice. At the time, he was superintendent of Point MacKenzie Correctional Farm. As a matter of fact, ACOA was one of the first unions to endorse Palin during her 2006 gubernatorial campaign. But Palin stood behind her commissioner on Tuesday afternoon, saying, "Commissioner Schmidt has my full support as he and his team continue to bring remarkable reforms to the Department of Corrections."

ACOA's list of outstanding grievances for 2008 to date is shown HERE. While ACOA may be short-staffed, it is not as severe as it once was, since the grievances for forced overtime, which once were numerous, have dropped to almost nil. The additional 40 officers should help with the staffing problem.

However, the overcrowding problem is becoming serious. It manifests itself at the Anchorage Jail, where many two-man cells are occupied by three men, and the third man must sleep scrunched up in a boat-like pod on the floor of the cell. Help with this problem is on the way with the construction of a new prison at Point Mackenzie, which will accomodate 1,536 inmates, but construction won't be complete until 2011.

The MRSA problem is something that DOC needs to get on top of right away. This is a flesh-eating staphylococcus that caused 19,000 deaths in the United States in 2005. Homosexuals are particularly susceptible to it, and homosexuality is more common in prison than out in the streets, primarily for opportunistic reasons. This is a problem that can be controlled and solved now, if it exists to the degree that ACOA believes it does. But Dr. Henry Luban, the Medical Director of Corrections, seems to believe it is under control.

However, KTVA reports that in October 2007, a Spring Creek corrections officer who spoke to them about MRSA was suspended for six days and threatened with termination if he spoke to the media again. This action sends mixed signals about DOC's commitment to "transparency".

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