Former representative George Hansen (R-Idaho), incarcerated in the Petersburg, Va., federal prison on a campaign-fund violation, has protested vehemently about the danger of AIDS at the penal institution. Now the controversy has taken on new life with the disciplining of three prison employes who wanted better protection against inmates found to be infected with the deadly disease.
The three, all case managers, were placed on indefinite leave with pay after they filed formal grievances over the prison administration's refusal to disseminate the results of AIDS testing at the facility. They also received poor job-performance ratings. Prison officials said the suspended workers presented "security and safety concerns."
The officials deny the actions were retaliatory. But five case managers who filed grievances about AIDS, including those who were suspended, received poor ratings; the other two case managers, who didn't file grievances, received passing grades.
The employes on leave must remain at home or be easily reachable from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. One described his situation as "house arrest."
Two of the workers, Charles Trotman and Nathaniel Nelson, are president and vice president of the local chapter of the American Federation of Government Employees. They contend that management wants to keep them away from work until after next month's union elections.
Trotman and Nelson are also black. After they charged that racism played a part in their being placed on leave, a third case manager, Steve Michniak, who is white, was also put on indefinite leave. The union charges that he was singled out to rebut the charge of racism.
Nelson told our reporter Gary Clouser that he wants the public to know the cost of keeping the three men on leave with pay -- a total annual rate of more than $90,000. In addition, three case managers brought in to take their places are each paid $50 per diem above their salaries.
The heart of the case managers' grievance is that they must come in close contact with the prisoners every day without knowing which ones have tested positive for the AIDS virus. AIDS is a particular problem in prisons because many inmates are drug abusers, and some have contracted the disease by sharing needles with other drug users.
The employes' position was stated in a letter to the Bureau of Prisons from union attorney Linda Sheffield. "These employes are expected to stop fights, assist in medical emergencies, administer first aid and live in close quarters with AIDS carriers for eight hours a day, five days a week," she wrote.
"Needless to say, an atmosphere of fear and suspicion has developed, as well as deep resentment of administration officials, who have failed and refused to confront the situation, while maintaining a safe distance from the inmate population."
Prison spokesman Frank Sizer said that the institution has complied with Bureau of Prisons policy on the matter. He said inmates are tested upon entering and exiting the prison, and results of the AIDS tests are known only to Warden J.J. Clark and to prison physicians -- and to others on a "need-to-know" basis as decided by the warden.