Jail Guards Ask Governors for Protection Against Virus

The Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York City. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)

(CN) – Three U.S. correctional officers have died from the coronavirus and union leaders called on governors Friday to do more to protect prison staff at risk from their close contact with inmates.

As county officials and judges across the U.S. heed the calls of health officials to release sickly inmates to keep them from falling victim to Covid-19 outbreaks, state correctional officers say they are being kept out of the loop in addressing the crisis.

“Our biggest concern is we are going to take this home to our families and I have two grandchildren that I haven’t seen in two weeks because it’s so dangerous what’s going on,” said LaRonda Velaga, a guard at Thumb Correctional Facility in Lapeer, Mich.

Velaga said that the Michigan Department of Corrections has not implemented social distancing measures as recommended to stem the spread of the virus.

“We are still running schools in our facilities…[Prisoners] are still going to libraries,” she said. “There’s no 6 feet away.”

The Michigan DOC now requires all its 38,000 inmates and 8,000 correctional officers to wear masks all the time, said Byron Osborn, president of the Michigan Corrections Organization, a chapter of the Service Employees International Union.

But due to the national shortage, Michigan state inmates in prison factories are sewing masks made from the same polyester material as their uniforms.

“They’re very hot. They have threads poking you,” Velaga said.

Velaga, Osborn and others spoke to reporters on a press call Friday to bring attention to a plea from labor unions to U.S. governors, asking them to ensure prison guards are kept safe and fairly compensated for working in prisons that health officials warn are susceptible to Covid-19 outbreaks.

Brian Dawe, executive director of the American Correctional Officer Intelligence Network, said the organization sent a letter to the National Governors Association this week asking for hazard pay for all correctional officers, paid sick leave, protective gear and death benefits for the families of any prison guards who die from Covid-19.

“We are the first responders in one of the most dangerous and volatile environments there is on earth today,” Dawe said on the call. “We are exposed to communicable diseases at rates much higher than any other profession with the exception of our medical health care providers.”

Since March 16, the virus has killed correctional officers in Michigan, New Jersey and New York.

Dawe said there is no consistency among state corrections departments.

In Arizona, the state’s prison director told staff not to wear their own masks because it would scare the inmates, Dawe said, citing an Arizona correction lieutenant’s whistleblower complaint.

“And one of the biggest problems is a failure of communication with the administrations and with the officers,” he said. “We believe there should be daily briefings. We believe these officers should be brought up to speed about what’s going on in there.”

The letter follows up on a class action the American Federation of Government Employees filed against the government in U.S. Federal Claims Court on March 27 on behalf of three Federal Bureau of Prisons employees, a Department of Agriculture food safety inspector, and a radiologist who works at a Veterans Affairs hospital in Portland, Ore.

They claim the government owes them hazard pay for forcing them to work close to people infected with, and objects and surfaces contaminated by, the coronavirus without adequate protective gear.  

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