By ART CHANCE
“Walking Alaska’s Toughest Beat” is the motto of the Alaska Correctional Officers’ Association, the union that represents the uniformed security staff of the Alaska Department of Corrections.
The Department of Corrections was in my portfolio for most of my time with State Labor Relations. I got it almost immediately after I began with the State of Alaska in 1987, and I quickly learned that I got it because I was the “new guy,” and nobody else wanted it. I covered DOC until I became director in 2003.
I advised their supervisors and managers, I represented the State in adjudicating grievances, and I negotiated most of their labor agreements.
In the early days, the correctional officers were a part of the General Government Unit, the 8,000-odd member bargaining unit that represents all State employees who aren’t something else. The relationship between the correctional officers and the State was contentious on good days.
The correctional officers were prohibited from striking and had access to interest arbitration to resolve their contract formation disputes. In the 1980s, the Alaska Public Employees Association represented them, and in the early 1990s the Alaska State Employees Association represented them.
Both used them as their “storm troopers” by taking correctional officers negotiations to impasse and arbitration and then using the arbitration award as a template for an agreement for the rest of the bargaining unit.
We got them under a voluntary agreement just before we went to arbitration with the rest of the general government unit in 1990 or so, when they were represented by ASEA. We began encouraging correctional officers leadership personalities to form a separate unit for the correctional officers. We maybe thought about helping them do that, but it would have been illegal, so, of course, we didn’t.
They were successful in forming their own bargaining unit composed solely of correctional officers and in the beginning represented by the Public Safety Employees’ Association, the union that also represented State Troopers. PSEA represented them well, but the relationship wasn’t happy and the correctional officers went off on their own as an independent association in the early 2000s. They were and remain the only State employee union that is local, independent, and not a part of the AFL-CIO. We got along with them pretty well but we did them no favors. I rearranged the career plans of quite a number of their members by sustaining dismissals in arbitration.
The last dismissal arbitration I ever did on behalf of the State was a correctional officer in Nome for excessive force. I won. Full disclosure; since I retired, I’ve represented the union in several arbitrations. When they’re right, they’re right, and with State management as it has been in recent years, they’re often right. I only half-jokingly said that I had made the State’s labor relations policy: “We can work this out if you don’t involve Art in it.”
I also had the State Troopers in my portfolio for much of my career. The Troopers might argue about who has the toughest beat, but I’d say it is a toss-up. Troopers are much more likely to have to confront someone with a weapon in his hand, but they have one too, and the correctional officers don’t.
But to the tough part, Troopers get to do good things and deal with good people, although sometimes in bad circumstances. About the only thing a correctional officer has to look forward to in his/her 12-hour shift is quitting time. We’ve made heroes of healthcare workers and first responders in the Covid Scamdemic, but these workers know the people they’re dealing with are sick; the correctional officers take whomever the police drop off at the sally port.
It is a hard thing to work the balance, even if you know the world of criminal justice pretty well. The cop and correctional officer position is always that a civilian can’t substitute his/her judgment for the law enforcement officer who is facing a threat. I don’t buy that view without qualification. The civilians have a voice too, but that voice has its limits; if you haven’t had to make the split second decision to use force, you really aren’t qualified to judge somebody else’s decision to use force.
At minimum, any civilian involved in a use of force decision should have a comprehensive knowledge of the correctional and law enforcement environment. I did quite a few force cases. I won some and I lost some; won more than I lost but not by a wide margin, and the reality was that the arbitrator who was making the decision had little knowledge of the environment. Unfortunately, people with a J.D. from Harvard don’t usually know much about jails.
Which brings me to what I really want to talk about. On Nov. 22, 2017, three inmates at Anchorage Correctional Center were to be transferred from one area of the jail to another by a prisoner transport officer in a Corrections van. The transfer was caused by the misbehavior of the inmates in assaulting another inmate, so these guys were on the radar as aggressive inmates.
When the van arrived on the other side of the facility, something happened and the inmates became aggressive as the transport officer attempted to disembark the inmates to the sally port. A group of correctional officers converged and one of them discharged pepper spray at one of the inmates, which made incidental contact with the other two inmates. The correctional officers closed the van door to restrain the inmates. Surveillance video reveals that the inmates remained in the closed van between seven and seventeen minutes.
The incident deescalated and the inmates were brought into the facility. At least one showered to remove the pepper spray. Two others may not have had the opportunity to shower and change clothes. One of the inmates filed an inmate grievance. Correction’s Human Resources investigated it, the “internal affairs” unit investigated it, and neither found merit in the inmate’s complaint. Just for the record, inmates complain a lot.
Enter the Ombudsman’s Office.
Confession: I never had much use for the Ombudsman’s Office. It was always political types doing political things for the politicians they worked for. I had enough trouble hiring people with investigatory and analytical skills in real jobs; these were jobs for somebody who knew somebody. The events at issue took place during the Gov. Bill Walker Administration, but by the time the Ombudsman got involved, the Walker Administration was gone. The Ombudsman is a Walker appointee with a five-year term.
Somehow in the last few months the Ombudsman’s interest in this case was rekindled. Three or four years after the event transpired, the Ombudsman’s office asked Corrections to respond to allegations of wrongdoing regarding events that took place before the current Corrections managers were even in office.
I’ve read the public version of the report in some detail, and I do know how to read these things, and the DOC didn’t cover itself in glory, but after the passage time involved, it would be difficult to respond. There is a legal doctrine of “latches” which says that the passage of time is a defense because time makes you unable to adequately defend yourself.
We get a magnum opus from the Ombudsman about how Corrections should manage itself. Nobody in the Ombudsman’s Office has a clue how the DOC should manage itself. I’m willing to bet that nobody who participated in this investigation had ever been behind a door they didn’t have the key to before they did this inquiry.
Of course, Pravda — excuse me, the Anchorage Daily News — made the Ombudsman’s report front page news.
This is a rerun of an old communist-Democrat play. They and the ADN scammed up the National Guard scandal to bludgeon Gov. Sean Parnell. Somewhere in there they ginned up a scandal about Corrections systematically abusing Native inmates and the Gov. Bill Walker regime put a self-serving social worker in charge to try to make political points. Well that guys made enough political points to get an appointment in Colorado, where they thoroughly hate him.
If I’d gotten this case, and in my time I probably would have, I would have investigated it with Department of Administration employees and I might have put some paper in a couple of officers’ files. I only know what I can glean from an investigatory report made by people who didn’t know what they were looking at. Maybe the use of force was justified, maybe it was just an act of intimidation.
I don’t know, and neither does the Ombudsman, but I assume the Walker people will try to use it the same way they used the National Guard scandal, because that was the whole purpose of it.
Art Chance is a retired Director of Labor Relations for the State of Alaska, formerly of Juneau and now living in Anchorage. He is the author of the book, “Red on Blue, Establishing a Republican Governance,” available at Amazon.