Sheriff's Department Deputies Seek Union for Employees at the House of Corrections

By MANDY LOCKE

Complaining of inconsistent leadership and frequent deviations from department policies, deputies at the Edgartown House of Corrections will vote this month to seek union representation from the Massachusetts Correctional Officers Federated Union.

According to many current and former correctional officers, employee-management relations inside the jail have been strained for a long time.

"It feels like we're fighting to have the jail run properly," said one current employee, rattling off a list of formal jail policies that he said some management officials choose to ignore when it infringes on the requests of favored inmates.

Tensions reached a boiling point this summer after department leaders disciplined officers in the wake of the May escape of 22-year-old inmate David Luce. When Sheriff Michael McCormack attempted to demote one long-term employee who supervised the facility the night of the escape, the employee resigned rather than revert to deputy status.

Demotion, sources argued, was not a specified disciplinary action listed in county personnel bylaws that govern the employment of correctional officers. Provisions for demotion have since been added to the disciplinary structure for county employees.

"We're not fighting for more money," said another current employee who wishes to remain nameless. "We simply want a set of rules that are followed and not changed on a whim."

But the move to unionize took Sheriff McCormack, himself a 25-year employee of the department, by surprise.

"I don't know what the issues are, and I certainly can't talk to [officers] about it now," Mr. McCormack said, referring to national labor laws which restrict during the pre-vote period any communication between employees and management that may be interpreted as a threat or promise. "But I certainly support their right to join. And if they vote it in, we'll certainly work through those issues."

Mr. McCormack said he is anxious to learn more about the issues driving his employees to seek union representation.

His employees - 13 deputies and a group of eight sergeants and lieutenants who will vote in a separate block - are anxious to share their frustrations.

Ninety per cent of the deputies and sergeants signed their names to a petition to form a collective bargaining unit this summer. Signatures from only 30 per cent of employees, according to union representative Paul Reynolds, are required in order for the National Labor Relations Board in Boston to schedule a vote.

Frustrated deputies aim much of their criticism not at the sheriff, but rather at deputy superintendent Mary Lee McCormack, the sheriff's wife and head officer at the jail.

"They've been tolerating a system from Superintendent McCormack that ranges from extreme favoritism to extreme harshness," Mr. Reynolds said.

One former long-term employee attributes his resignation from the department to an unwillingness to work under Mrs. McCormack.

"It got to the point when I would much rather deal with hostile inmates than Mrs. McCormack," he said.

Some current employees charge that the jail is steeped in patronage - a code under which, sources say, employees who remain silent when rules are broken are fast-tracked to higher positions. One low-ranking employee, sources say, was promoted four ranks from deputy to major within three years.

"That was the last straw for most of the old crew," said a former employee. "The sheriff has lost so many employees in the last several years." He estimated the turnover at about 30 correctional officers in the last five years.

Some employees said it is poor management, not poor facility conditions, that contributes to the frequent inmate escapes - more than 10 since 1977.

"It looks like they want us to move from a badly run, outdated facility to a badly run, state-of-the-art facility," one employee said.

One employee said that when he followed proper procedure in performing nightly bed checks by shining a light on inmates and watching for signs of breathing, inmates would complain to Mrs. McCormack. She then demanded that deputies simply verify a human lump in the bed during nightly checks, the employee said.

Sources said they also feared enforcing any sort of disciplinary actions with the inmates, because jail leadership would often reverse the punishment and chastise the offending employee.

"We have absolutely no leg to stand on when disciplining," one source said. "If we ever lock an inmate down, [Mrs. McCormack] would let them out."

Some employees said they also fear that potentially dangerous and ill-behaved inmates are being granted work-release or road crew privileges over the recommendations of several deputies and sergeants. Some said that Mr. Luce, the inmate who escaped this summer, should never have been assigned to road cleanup.

The last several months have been particularly challenging for correctional officers, sources said.

After the sheriff and other high-ranking jail employees learned of the union petition, they changed the decade-old method of choosing schedules. Instead of allowing employees to choose four-month schedules according to seniority - rank and length of employment - the superintendent is now assigning shifts. Employees who led efforts to unionize interpret the move as retaliation for their attempts to organize, and said they have been assigned shifts directly opposite to those they have typically chosen in the past.

Mr. Reynolds said he filed unfair labor charges against the sheriff for the policy change. The matter has yet to be resolved.

The sheriff and the attorney for the county in the matter said they could not comment further on these issues due to strict laws limiting their statements before the vote.

Mr. Reynolds expects a vote within two weeks for the deputies and another vote in the coming months for sergeants and lieutenants. Votes will be cast through the mail over a 10-day period.

"The community needs to know what goes on in the jail - all the secrets," one former employee said. "They need someone to go in there and do a clean sweep. It's a nightmare."