The 340 corrections officers at the D.C. Jail charged yesterday that budget cuts have made the jail unsafe and have threatened to walk off their jobs if conditions there are not improved.
In a letter to jail superintendent George Holland, the officers detailed what they said are dangerous staff shortages and equipment malfunctions at the jail. They concluded that the violations in health and safety that presently exist . . . contributed to a successful breakout" from the jail by three inmates on May 8.
"If steps are not taken immediately . . . ," the officers' chief union steward, Bernard Demczuk, wrote, "employes . . . will refuse to go into workplaces that are against their interests of self-protection."
"We are tired of being stalled," said Demczuk. "If we have to take things into our own hands we will . . . The men are ready for a mass sick-out. If I wanted to I could lead a walkout tomorrow."
Holland said late yesterday afternoon that he had not yet received the letter and declined to comment.
Demczuk said that tensions among officers have been increased by a recent change in sick-leave policy.
In a memo dated May 15, jail administrator Alonzo Washington Jr. said that employes requesting sick leave may be required to submit a doctor's statement indicating the nature and date of an illness and why the absence from work was necessary. "If not properly substantiated, you may be subject to discipline including discharge," the memo stated.
Washington declined to comment about the reasons for the policy change. Officers could formerly simply tell a fellow employe they were sick and would not be coming to work.
Demczuk said, however, that "the threat of a sick-out has been hanging in the air for some time."
He also noted that many of the 58 officers who recently have been told they will be laid off as part of Mayor Marion Barry's plans to furlough 225 correctional officers in facilities around the city have been calling in sick rather than reporting for work. Demczuk said that action has left the already understaffed jail even more short-handed.
He contends that the present staff of 340 corrections officers is at least 65 officers short of a safe contingent.
In the May 8 breakout, the grievance letter charged that:
The officer assigned to walk a beat outside the jail walls was instead ordered to escort inmates from a halfway house to the jail. "There should have been enough staff to both escort inmates and maintain external security. . .
"With only two officers in a cell-block of 80 inmates, two wings and two tiers, it is impossible for one floor officer to observe all areas of the cellblock. If three officers were assigned . . . the likelihood of sawing out a window and then crawling out are diminished."
Staff shortages have meant that officers do not have adequate time to search prisoners for contraband, such as hacksaw blades and drugs. Supervisors are forced to leave the staff members' entrance so officers can eat lunch. "No telling what contraband comes into the jail [in the hands of jail employes] when we do not have a staff entrance officer," the letter said.
Both the exterior and interior surveillance systems at the jail are nonfunctional, as are the hand frisker and the metal detector at the staff entrance.
"And perhaps most importantly," the grievance letter said, "there has been a general breakdown in morale and job performance due to impending (layoffs), staff shortages, job stress and security infractions leading up to the escape. . . A general breakdown in operations is now in the works."
More than 20 officers interviewed outside the jail during a shift change yesterday said they concurred with the letter's conclusions.
"It's like something's ready to explode in there," said one officer who, like the others, declined to give his name for fear of reprisals. "It's like ESP. The strike is coming. I say it'll be this week and I'll be there."