WI Voices: Correctional Officer
“Jake” is a correctional officer (aka “Blue Shirt”) in a Wisconsin state prison. He has worked for the Department of Corrections for over 15 years. Jake tells me that due to the policies of Gov. Walker, the stability and safety of his work environment are being threatened. Now that Jake’s union has lost all of its bargaining rights – workers have little avenue left to improve the situation for themselves and the inmates that they manage.
Here’s his story.
What is the main purpose of your job?
The main focus and purpose of my job is safety and security for the public. We work a job that nobody else wants to. We do that by choice. I was told when I started this job – if you come into this job looking for glory or praise you aren’t going to get it. And I understand that. And I’ve been tempted to leave on several occasions, but I haven’t. Benefits play a role in staying, but I’ve also made so many life long friends in this job. It is much like the law enforcement or fire department setting in that we are a family because of what we do for a living. We all work odd hours; we all have safety issues involved in our jobs. So, you know, you gotta be able to trust each other – our job is unique.
Contrary to public belief, we aren’t all ‘knuckle draggers,’ ‘The Haves’ or ‘The Thugs’. Our job is actually 90% communication. We have to be good communicators. In our job we want to de-escalate. We are educated professionals. We work in a job where there is a lot of stress, so we make a lot of wise cracks to each other. But when it comes down to it – we are forced to be a responsive group of people. We will respond to how the inmates react.
I mean, I’ve been hurt by inmates twice in 15 years. I had to be tested for AIDS both times and wait 6 months for the results. I was mind-F***ed waiting that long. The first time it happened I was pat searching an inmate. He had taken a paper clip and had sharpened it to a needle and it tore through my glove. The next time I got tested for AIDS was after two inmates got into a fight over a card game. I was covered in blood from finger tips to the top of my shoulders. In that particular situation I had a guy take a jab at me but I ducked – I was fortunate enough to have the leverage. I had to perform a vertical-wall stun…basically push him into the nearest wall. Then I escorted him to the ground and (hand) cuffed him. You are not allowed to get angry. Because if you get angry, you may lose control.
So, safety is definitely an issue. How will Walker’s policies affect safety of correctional officers?
The cuts are coming to the DOC.
If this budget goes through we will lose a lot of qualified people, because we will lose the necessary incentive to keep them in here. If you pay a Blue Shirt $8/hour, they aren’t treated well, they don’t have any say, you don’t offer them any benefits, the working conditions aren’t the best, and then you add what you would considers society’s worst on top of that? You know, it takes a special person…. [long pause] not to make some bad choices in that situation.
We also don’t have as much training as we used to have. There is no funding for it. Before, we would schedule an extra body to provide coverage, so many of us were trained together. Now, most of our training will be done on the computer on our own. How the hell am I suppose to watch the inmates if I’m sitting in front of the computer?
Then, there is the food issue. What they are cutting out, how much they are serving, how it is being prepared, or different food. There’s a saying: ‘There’s two things that you don’t mess with in prison: mail and food’. Because that’s all the inmates have. That’s all they have. I’ve seen serveries on the housing units almost be lost control of because they didn’t get Sloppy Joes. When you hear about riots – most of the time it is related to mail or food.
Another safety issue that I can think of is the added fact that I’m looking at the possibility of having to work another job. People already work two jobs. Realistically – it shouldn’t happen. What happens there is – you are working two jobs and you are tired, not as aware, and it becomes an additional safety issue here.
The WI Supreme Court overruled Judge Sumi today and “The Collective Bargaining Bill” was allowed to be published. Besides safety issues – how will losing bargaining affect your profession?
Next month – after 15 years – I have a 50% chance of getting a straight 1st shift job. I’ve worked 2nd or 3rd for 11 years and shift relief for 4 years. It took me 15 years of hard work to get here though, ok? I think I’ve earned that, ok? But theoretically, now that bargaining has gone away, that opportunity could go away.
I honestly believe that our Governor, the Fitzgeralds, ‘the powers that be’ haven’t thought about the consequences at the local level. If the master contract goes away and there is no collective bargaining, then our ability to bargain for health insurance is gone, seniority could go away, signing procedure could go away, transferring from one agency to another, sick leave, policies, for God’s sake, – hazing and harassment – unions used to have some say in those things. And good luck filing a grievance with the civil service system.
You are taking the representative process away. You are taking away policy and procedures that have been devised in cooperation with workers and supervisors. You can sit and tell me until you are blue in the face that you aren’t gonna mess with those things – but just take a look! It is already happening! No contract – nothin’ says they need to do it! They are saying things like “such and such is not even a consideration at this time.” I mean – at this time? It doesn’t take a genius to see what is coming.
But most importantly are the inner workings of the institutions that will be messed up. If we are short-staffed, I’m at the mercy of ‘the powers that be’. There will be no accountability for the bosses. They could now potentially screw with people’s families and lives. If we don’t have any bargaining, what if I piss off a supervisor? Scott Walker wants management to have total control over everybody. I’m not saying that a boss shouldn’t run their business – but they are doing that right now already in cooperation with the union!
You spoke of your work environment as being “like a family.” Will losing unions have the potential of jeopardizing that atmosphere if you are now forced to compete against each other?
Right now, this is galvanizing us for the most part. People are finally understanding the potential impact. But, not having bargaining rights may have a negative impact regarding our “family” atmosphere is if the state screws with seniority. If vacation, overtime, or if job positions are not offered by seniority…if these things are arbitrarily awarded to whomever, instead of allowing people who have worked years for these things to use seniority, yeah eventually it could threaten that brotherhood atmosphere. Maybe not right away but eventually people will get angry if people are getting something they haven’t necessarily earned.
How do you feel about the hundreds of millions of tax breaks to major corporations?
You know – in a perfect world, giving tax breaks to corporations would be a good thing if they were to build here and do things like that. But you are talking about taking out a huge chunk of the tax base out of the middle class with whatWalkeris doing. The thing that pisses me off is – if you have good workers and people have money to spend – companies are going to come here!
[Statistics support Jake’s assertions. According to the Economic Policy Institute, “Right to Work” states have lower wages, benefits, and retirement plans for all of their workers in comparison to states with unions. Furthermore, studies show that being a RTW state has no positive impact on job growth and no discernable impact on attracting new business.]
I think it is working slowly toward privatization of state. And let me tell you something – private prisons don’t work. There are certain corporations that build prisons and they run them for profit. Studies show that private prisons pay way less, the screening provisions on employees is way less. Statistics for violence is higher, the rate of drug trafficking is higher. The training, apparently, isn’t as thorough.
[In response to budget cuts, Sheriff David A. Clark (Milwaukee) recently announced intentions of laying off 110 county employees in a move toward outsourcing and privatization.]
There wouldn’t be a 40-hour work week without unions. A lot of the benefits that everyone receives in the private sector, too – wouldn’t even have that opportunity if it weren’t for unions. Because, I believe that unions force private companies to be competitive. Now, if a private sector person has to pay more for their benefits – I’m sorry about that. Some people won’t even comprehend the fact that I chose a different job specifically for something with some kind of insurance and a retirement plan.
[Far beyond wages and benefits, unions also negotiate for safer work environment, safer work practices, safety training, occupational health, cost effective labor-management, and many others.]
You know, I had a couple of buddies that went down toMadison with me. We saw a couple of unemployed people standing there with ”Walker” signs and a couple of Blue Shirts went up to talk. TheWalkersupporters said, “It is about time that you suffer, too.” Really? That’s your answer? You could make the choice to work my shi**y hours, you could make the choice to work with society’s most undesirable, you could make the choice to start out at the bottom at $9/hour and work your way up – just as I did. [After 15 years Jake now makes about $22/hour.]
Some people know you’re losing hundreds of dollars every month, losing health benefits, retirement that you’ve built up and they’ll say, “Hey, that’s not my problem. You should have to suffer, too.” [throwing hands up and shaking head] My buddy said it best, “If this is supposed to be such a great country, and a great state – why are you wishing ill will on somebody else?”
Our parents, and grandparents before them, have taught the value of the American Dream. If you make wise choices, work hard, and honor your own committments – you will climb up the ladder and will make a life for yourself and your family. “Walker’s Dream” is eroding the American Dream of our ancestors by taking away the ladder upon which we climb. Regular people work their whole lives climbing that ladder, only to have the rungs cut from above. “Walker’s Dream” shows us that it is ok for those in power to back out of their promises when a better deal can be made for themselves. “Walker’s Dream” teaches us that it is ok for those in power to take from the working many and give to themselves and their friends. This enables bullies within every institution. But Walker’s attrition of the American dream is even more sinister than that – in cases like The Department of Corrections – his policies compromise the safety and security of the workers and public they protect. As Jake offers, “I honestly believe that our Governor hasn’t thought about the consequences at the local level.”