More than 400 correctional officers at the Lorton Reformatory and the D.C. Jail defied a court order yesterday and staged a wildcat strike to protest layoffs and staff shortages they say have endangered the safety of prisoners and guards at the two facilities.
While the guards picketed the prisons, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry ordered 123 Special Operations Division police officers into the jail and reformatory to act as interim guards in the strikers' absence. Barry refused to meet with the strikers, calling the city's first large-scale guard stike "illegal."
In a prepared statement issued last night, Barry said that "both facilities are secure, both inside and outside . . . adequate security for both the residents of the institution and for our citizens is being and will continue to be provided for."
Strike organizer Bernard Demczuk, an American Federation of Government Employes shop steward at the jail, said that "all we want is to meet with Mayor Barry . . . . We'll go back to work if he meets with us."
But a Barry spokesman said that the mayor would not meet with the guards and that city attorneys will "be prepared" to file unfair labor practice charges against the AFGE with the D.C. Public Employe Relations Board this morning if strikers do not return to work.
Contempt of court citations against the strikers and the union will also be sought, the spokesman said, and D.C. Corrections chief Delbert Jackson will send letters to all strikers warning them that continued absence could result in their in their dismissal.
AFGE district vice president Donald MacIntyre said the guards' strike "has not been sanctioned . . . . It was organized while the local ledership was at a national convention in Hawaii. The union itself is not a party to this action."
MacIntyre added that the union will enter into arbitration with the city later this month in hopes of winning reinstatements for the 76 guards who were laid off.
The wildcat action was the latest incident in a six-month battle between corrections officrs and Barry over the effect of city budget cuts on conditions in the city's correctional facilities.
In that period, 73 guards have been laid off. In June, Demczuk said the layoffs were responsible for "a general breakdown in morale and job performance due to . . . staff shortages (and) job stress," and blamed those factors for the May 18 escape by four immates from the jail.
Demczuk said yesterday that the walkout was precipitated by the transfer of 16 guards from Lorton's medium-security facility to the maximum-security facility in accordance with a U.S. District Court order directing the city to increase the number of guards at the maximum-security facility.
The suit, originally brought by several Lorton inmates, had alleged that staff shortages had endangered the lives and safety of inmates there. "We had thought we had won part of the staff-shortage battle in court," Demczuk said, "but all they did was transfer people. The same shortages and the same problems exist."
Demczuk said he had hoped to avoid the strike, but when negotiations between city officials and guard representatives broke down after more than four hours Tuesday night, he said "We have no choice but to strike."
The guards began picketing the two facilities at about 6:30 a.m. yesterday, with most of the action concentrated at the D.C. Jail. About 300 strikers and sympathizers sang "We Shall Overcome" and carried signs saying, "Mayor Barry, I do not want to die," "This jail is unsafe" and "This work paraded before television cameras near the front and employe entrances of the jail.
But within 15 minutes, city attorneys had won a temporary restraining order forbidding the strike.
D.C. Superior Court Judge Leonard Braman blocked all corrections department employes from any "strike, work stoppage, slowdown, job action or otherwise interfering or affecting the function" of the department. The order also prohibited the union from encouaging or aiding a strike or other job action.
The guards voted to ignore the court order, however, and many tore up the copies of it that were handed to them on the picket line by corrections officials.
Only 10 of the 109 officers assigned to the day shift at the D.C. Jail reported for work at 7 a.m. To make up for the shortage, corrections officials there retained midnight shift workers on overtime.
Of the 131 guards assigned at Lorton, 70 did not report for work. However, many of them abandoned their protest and reported late after officials at the D.C. Jail intercepted a call from the Lorton strikers to the D.C. Jail strikers and convinced them that the D.C. Jail strikers had returned to work.
But by 4 p.m. yesterday, all of the guards who were on overtime at both facilities had walked out, vowing not to return until their demands are met. That left 44 police officers to do the work of 80 guards at the D.C. Jail. Only five guards crossed the picket line and went to work there, but at Lorton, most of the evening shift reported as scheduled. The biggest staffing problems occurred in the two youth facilities. At Youth Center 1, none of the 22 guards showed up. At Youth Center 2, only half of the 18 guards came to work. A corrections department spokesman said, however, that those guard shortages were being filled by supervisors and other personnel.
At a morning press conference at the jail, strike organizers outlined the following demands, which they said should be met by Oct. 1:
That all 76 guards who had been laid off be rehired.
That staff levels in the jail, now at 397 guards, be increased to 485.
That existing guards should be paid overtime to bring staffing levels up to 485 in the period before any new guards are hired.
That health and safety programs be instituted to deal with problems of job stress.
"If we have to stay out here for a week, for a month, or for a year, we will remain here," correctional officer Wesley Wiley said to a round of cheers and applause from his fellow strikers. "We will remain outside these walls until the mayor speaks with us.
"Tuesday night, the mayor's officials said they were dealing with us in good faith, but when we came out this morning, the corporation counsel had a restraining order in his hand for us. Is that good faith? No.It's a stab in the back."
"The jail's unsafe. We just don't have enough manpower to do the job we're supposed to be doing," said correctional officer Reginald Dockett.
"Just about all the cellblocks have two men instead of the normal three to handle 75 to 80 inmates. You have fights, disturbances among the inmates. You know they have drugs and weapons hidden in there, but with two guys you just can't prevent things from happening," Dockett said.
"There are people in there , people we have to deal with every day, that have serious mental problems. Some are worried about their (criminal) charges, some are just born losers. You get a bunch of people like that together and you're going to have trouble. Not having enough guards just makes it worse," said Sgt. Melvin Freeman, a 12-year corrections department veteran.
"You have people who think that jail's just like the James Cagney movies, that we walk around with big sticks and guns. But we don't have weapons and we don't have adequate staff," Freeman continued.
"As it sands, the residents inside the jail have more rights than the correctional officers."