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April 11, 2024

CT prisons need more staff, higher wages, correction officers say

LUKE FEENEY / CT MIRROR Rudy Demiraj, president of AFSCME Council 4, local 387, addresses the media in support of correction officers in CT.

Connecticut correctional union members are urging state legislators to pass a budget that would provide funding for additional staffing in prisons and additional tools to keep correctional staff safe amid an increase in violence.

The calls came at a press conference on Wednesday in the state Capitol where correctional officers voiced support for a planned 2.5% general raise that nearly 45,000 state employees would receive in the next fiscal year under a tentative deal announced at the beginning of March by Gov. Ned Lamont and labor leaders. 

But the union members voiced frustration that stalled budget negotiations this session could prevent the state from spending more money to hire additional prison staff.

At the beginning of the legislative session, Lamont proposed sending $2.5 million to the Department of Correction for increased staffing to address growing assaults on officers and incarcerated people. 

At the press conference on Wednesday, correction officers and advocates from across the state discussed recent changes to the state’s prisons — some of which, they argue, have made the work of state employees in those institutions more dangerous.

“In the last couple of years, legislation has created a correctional climate where inmates have more out-of-cell time and far less accountability when they commit violence that warrants disciplinary action” Brian Larson, a correction officer at the Manson Youth Institution, said. 

In 2022, Senate Bill 459 — referred to as the PROTECT Act — was composed of three major components: increasing the number of mandated hours that prisoners can spend outside of their cells, limiting the DOC’s use of solitary confinement and establishing independent oversight of the agency.

While out-of-cell time for prisons has increased under the act, officers argued that there is an insufficient amount of correction posts at facilities throughout the state to manage the over 10,000 who are currently incarcerated in Connecticut.

“We are being asked to do more without the proper resources and adequate preparation needed to minimize the rate and severity of assaults,” Michael Vargo, president of AFSCME Local 1565, said. Vargo also said that officers are limited in how they can control inmates who turn to violence. 

“We all deserve to have the tools in place to keep ourselves and inmates safe to reach our common goal,” Lisa Hodges, a correction officer at York Correctional Institution, said. “It will take every one of us. Tell your legislators we need more posts, we need tools to limit assaults, we deserve to come home safely and not see our brothers and sisters in the hospital suffering serious injuries.”

Officers also argued that their compensation has not risen adequately to meet the dangers of the job.

“The financial incentive to stay in this profession is dwindling,” Sherine Bailey, a correction officer at Carl Robinson Correctional Institution, said. “With rigorous demands and the risks we pay, the low-level pay fails to reflect the gravity of our work.” 

The proposed labor agreement, which would include the 2.5% raise, still must be considered by the General Assembly and by bargaining units within the State Employees Bargaining Agents Coalition, which covers nearly the entire state government workforce.

Officers and union members made it clear that they will continue to push the legislature towards action on the issue.

“Get used to it,” Rudy Demiraj, a service representative for AFSCME Council 4 Local 387 said. “We’re not going away. Respect those who protect.”

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