AFSCME Council 18

Hot Situation at Los Lunas Prison Prompts Officers to Spend Tuesdays in the Sun

For immediate Release
Contact Miles Conway
505-455-2853

American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Union Members rallied nearby the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility (CNMCF) in Los Lunas this Tuesday. At dawn, correctional officers (COs) began an informational picket where they waved signs, distributed flyers, and spoke with those who pulled over about the mounting crisis of public safety happening in their own back yard.

AFSCME launched an online petition letter on the eve of the picket which asks Governor Martinez and Legislators to sit down, create and implement concrete strategies to turn the tide on high vacancy levels at all New Mexico public correctional facilities. By noon, the letter had received 400 petition signatures from Officers, their families and friends.

Full text of the letter is online at AFSCME18.org

Around 27 corrections officers held the corners of highway 314 and Morris road in rolling shifts for eight hours, part of a strategy to draw attention to 40% vacancy rates among corrections officers, the resulting 72 hour mandatory work week, and the devastating effects that come along with it.

Fatigue, stress, and break-down of well-being, commonly referred to as “corrections fatigue” is a major factor increasing the dangers of accidents or incidents at work. Signs said, “We’re Not Safer - Neither are You” and “Honk to support correctional officers for safer working conditions.”

Officers are both helper and disciplinarian to the needs of 1,100 inmates right in the heart of the riverside community. The population includes 400 mixed level inmates, who are held among the general prison population before going through a threat assessment, after which they may be moved to appropriate security-level facilities.

“People forget that the State of New Mexico’s largest prison is tucked back in this neighborhood,” said Sergeant Robert Darnell, an officer and local chapter president for CNMCF. “We need to build staffing levels so that the officers, the inmates, and the public are safe. The 72 hour work week must end. It is preventing officers from having adequate time for recovery, self care, or their families. It undermines our mission.”

“When Officers work these mandatory, maximum levels of overtime, through entire years, things like ‘corrections fatigue’ go from being something we learn about, to something we experience every day in our co-workers,” said Darnell.

Studies by the National Institute of Corrections (NIC), an arm of the U.S. Department of Justice, explore the science of “corrections fatigue”, an area of study coined to corral all the psychological stressors faced by corrections workers. Among other sobering statistics, studies demonstrate that a career in corrections causes levels of acute and post traumatic stress exceeding those found in police, active military, and even post 9/11 responders.

“Statistics on corrections fatigue are grim,” said Connie Derr, AFSCME Council 18 Executive Director. “COs average less than 6 hours of sleep a night, that's the equivalent of smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. Because of the constant overtime, New Mexico officers may be lucky to see four. Officers have higher incidents of diabetes, heart disease, and levels of work and family conflict. COs need to decompress. Many of the stressors inside the harsh prison environment cannot be eliminated, but when it comes ending the 72 hour work week, the Governor and the Legislature have that power. It is one factor they can absolutely begin to control by modernizing New Mexico’s compensation levels.”

The concerns are broadly felt all by officers of Local 3422C who, in testimonials, turn the pages of psychology into an in-your-face-reality. Towards the end of a week which includes four double shifts in a row, officers report incidents of blacking out on the way to, from, and during work. Several report being unable to bond with their infant children properly, and that their 2 year old does not recognize their dad.

One Officer, who wished to remain anonymous says, “I know for a fact that I'm operating on autopilot. These guys are training themselves to survive, to live their lives on short naps so they have a few waking hours with the family. It’s a matter of survival, but its not a healthy survival. From the captain on down, we’re in a dangerous survival mode.”

NM corrections officer pay remains uncompetitive and below the median income level for corrections officers, $18.81 according to the Bureau of Labor statistics. New Mexico begins officers at around $13.60 an hour, and even after a decade of service, they’re still well below the national rate.

Sergeant Darnell often sees good officers leave to work for the county facilities who offer better pay. AFSCME represents officers at several county detention facilities. At Santa Fe, Valencia, and Dona Ana Counties, union officers were able to negotiate for upwards of 10% raises. Bernalillo County’s Metropolitan Detention Center, also an AFSCME union facility, hires at $17 and hour, a rate that far exceeds what the state pays its officers.

“Uncompetitive pay is a major factor preventing the facilities from escaping the 72 hour work week trap,” said Rob Trombley, AFSCME Public Safety Coordinator. “Recruiting and retaining men and women into the career is an urgent priority shared by the Department and AFSCME. Now we need the Governor, the legislature, and the public to appreciate the gravity of the situation. Rookies are entering an intense work environment where decisions can have immediate consequences. Many leave after training and exposure to a corrections career that includes so much required overtime at uncompetitive pay.”

In a recent news report, NMCD Cabinet Secretary, Gregg Marcantel told the camera that he hated to admit it, but the department competes with McDonald’s on wages for his officers.

“Recruiting and retaining officers is our union’s top concern at corrections,” said Casey Padilla, AFSCME Council 18 President. “When you don’t have enough officers, the posts must continue to be covered. That’s the law. For officers just finishing a long shift it means they, unexpectedly, must remain for double shifts - five days a week, all year. It takes a terrible toll on the workers and their families. Fixing this will remain a top priority for AFSCME in New Mexico.”

Union Officers next plan to attend the Legislative Finance Committee meeting in Taos today and listen-in as State Personnel Director, Justin Najaka, reads out his report on state employee compensation and hard to recruit positions, including corrections.
Through its Labor Management Committee, the New Mexico Corrections Department and AFSCME have recognize all these life and death realities and agreed that addressing them need to be an urgent priority.

Corrections employees will continue to advocate for decisive action from the Governor and Legislature to foster a safer, well-run system. It may take years to turn the tide and reach safer staffing levels, but for the men and women who dedicate themselves to spending their careers behind prison walls, it’s mission critical.


Sources:

National Institute of Corrections: THE CORRECTIONS PROFESSION: MAINTAINING SAFETY AND SANITY, PART 1 Corrections Fatigue: Addressing the Issue?http://nicic.gov/library/027907

Desert Waters Correctional Outreach: Post Traumatic Stress in United States Corrections Professional: Prevalence and Impact on Health and Functioning?http://desertwaters.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/PTSD_Prev_in_Corrections_09-03-131.pdf


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