By PAT EATON-ROBB, Associated Press
NEW BRITAIN, Conn. (AP) _ Unionized prison guards are warning of inmate riots and other problems inside the state’s lockups if the government goes ahead with planned budget cuts.
Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has asked the Department of Correction to cut the equivalent of 1,019 positions and trim $62.9 million from its budget in the current fiscal year and $78 million in the next. His request comes after state employee unions failed to ratify a $1.6 billion labor savings deal needed to balance the two-year, $40.1 billion state budget.
The state plans to close the Bergin Correctional Institution in Mansfield in August and the Enfield Correctional Institution in Enfield by October.
In an interview with The Associated Press this week, the presidents of three prison employee union locals, which represent about 5,000 prison workers, said the cuts will lead to overcrowding in the remaining prisons, dangerous inmate-to-staff ratios and even too few maintenance workers to keep all the showers and toilets working.
“Unfortunately, I think, without a doubt, we will have a riot by the end of the year in these prisons,” said Luke Leone, president of AFSCME Local 1565 of the Connecticut Correction Employees Union.
Department of Correction spokesman Brian Garnett called those comments “irresponsible and unprofessional speculation.” He said the state can absorb the 1,300 inmates from Bergin and Enfield because the prison population has declined by about 2,300 inmates since 2008 to a 10-year low of about 17,600.
Malloy, who also noted that the prison population has been declining, said he heard the concerns of the prison employee unions.
“I understand that people say things,” he said Tuesday. “They are first and foremost advocates of their people, and I understand that.”
The Malloy administration has said the cost-cutting in the prison system will include about 400 layoffs. Another 600 cuts will be made by not filling current vacancies. Other savings are planned through changes in overtime and vacation policies.
The union officials said the population numbers are misleading because they don’t take into account everyone who is outside the prisons but is still under the department’s supervision. They also note that two other prisons, the Webster Correctional Institution in Cheshire and the J.B. Gates prison in Niantic, have been closed since last year.
Leone, whose local also represents parole officers, said those officers have been told not to report all problems that would send violators back to prison and not to issue violations for failed drug tests.
He warned that more inmates on the streets could result in more crimes like the 2007 home invasion in Cheshire during which two men out on parole for burglary were accused of killing a mother and her two daughters.
“It’s not now if another Cheshire happens but when a Cheshire happens,” he said, “because I think another incident like that is capable of happening.”
Garnett called that “ludicrous” and said the state would never ask a parole officer not to issue a violation. He said the Department of Correction’s efforts to respond to the lack of union concessions were being carried out “with public safety as our foremost concern.”
The unions also allege that the state continues to house inmates in spaces meant to be gymnasiums, dayrooms and even councilors’ offices. The union presidents said that adding 1,300 displaced prisoners to the system will create an untenable situation.
“Does anyone want to sleep on the floor?” said Lisamarie Fontano, president of AFSME Local 387, which represents workers at prisons in Cheshire, where about 350 displaced inmates are slated to be sent.
The state plans to reopens a block of Cheshire Correctional Institution cells that had been closed for 15 years.
Fontano said those cells were kept empty to house inmates in case of a riot, fire or other emergency in the system.
“If we have an incident, we now have nowhere to contain them to,” she said. “All the other spaces are being utilized for non-traditional housing. We can’t move people to the gym anymore. Why? Because we have people sleeping there.”
The union leaders said they believe prison workers have been targeted for layoffs and other cuts because they are one of the unions that voted to reject the concession agreement with Malloy.
“They are only targeting correctional staff,” Leone said. “What about the wardens’ cars? What about the 46 deputy wardens in 14 facilities? What about all the deputy wardens at the central offices? We have 46 deputy wardens making $4.6 million a year.”
Garnett said cuts are being made across the board, and he noted that the warden at Bergin also received a layoff notice.
Besides layoffs, the state also is changing some overtime and vacation policy in an effort to save money.
Jon Pepe, president of AFSCME Local 391, which represents workers at Enfield and the other prisons in northern Connecticut, said they are being told that the number of staffers who can be on vacation at any one time is being cut in half.
He said that means many officers with lower seniority won’t be able to use their vacation time. He said there will be more stress-related problems, workers’ compensation claims and sick days used.
“On paper it looks like they’re saving money, but in reality the costs are going to double,” Pepe said.
Garnett noted that the changes in policy are now just on paper and can be reversed if the governor and the unions can reach another concession agreement.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)