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Union claims staff shortage poses danger at state juvenile detention center

August 7, 2018

BRIDGEPORT - The prior layoff of staff along with on the job injuries and the raise in the state juvenile offender age has created a safety problem at the city’s state juvenile detention center, union officials said on Tuesday.

“It’s a serious situation that could get much worse,” Ron Nelson, a juvenile detention officer and vice president of AFSCME Local 749 told Hearst Connecticut Media. “Our officers are tired and overworked and the kids they supervise know it. It’s only a matter of time before something bad happens.”

In July 2016, the state Judicial Branch which oversees the state’s juvenile detention centers, layed off 40 detention officers. Then Gov. Dannell Malloy under his second chance initiatives successfully pushed to have the age for someone to be treated as a juvenile increased to 18.

“The combination of staff layoffs in 2016, combined with ‘raise the age,’ has left our juvenile detention facilities understaffed and our juvenile detention officers overworked and vulnerable to injury and burnout,” said AFSCME Local 749 President and State Supreme Court Police Officer Charles DellaRocco.

Nelson said the local detention center is supposed to be staffed by 55 detention officers working three shifts but 22 of those officers are currently out on worker’s compensation.

“We have officers out with torn ACLs, shoulder and back injuries, many are long-term worker’s comp cases,” he said. Nelson continued that all the injuries are the result of officers being overworked.

Nelson said because the age was increased many of the juveniles have the size of adult men and women and are a greater threat physically.

“Our people are being ordered to work 48 to 72 hours straight and they are overtired and they have to deal with these larger kids who are aggressive and know our people are tired,” Nelson said.

Many of the juveniles at the center are rival gang members and Nelson said they have fewer officers than they need to keep them separate.

“We had an instance where gang members jumped an individual, an officer called for backup but there was no one to back him up and he became injured,” Nelson said.

DellaRocco said the union has filed numerous grievances against the Judicial Branch over staffing and safety-related issues as well as two State Prohibited Practice complaints with the state Department of Labor. One of those complaints is scheduled for a hearing on Wednesday in Hartford.

“The Judicial Branch is committed to meeting all standards related to best practices as well as state and federal laws and regulations related to our two juvenile detention centers,” said Chief Court Administrator Patrick Carroll III. He said the juvenile detention centers have been accredited by the American Correctional Association since 2003, the National Commission on Correctional Healthcare since 2004, and have been compliant with the Prison Rape Elimination Act since 2014. The centers are re-accredited every three years.

“In the spring of fiscal year 2016, due to significant budget constraints, the Judicial Branch issued 300 layoff notices over a two-month period, which included 40 Juvenile Detention Officers and 15 other employees who worked in the detention centers. This past spring, all of the laid-off Juvenile Detention Officers were offered the opportunity to return to work, but only 13 accepted, and 10 additional employees who worked in the detention center returned to work,” Carroll continued.

In addition, Carroll said the Judicial Branch hired 21 juvenile detention trainee transitional officers on June 22, but two new employees did not report for the mandatory pre-service training. The remaining 19 new juvenile detention workers went through an intensive five weeks of pre-service training and another week of orientation. The detention workers started working in the field on Friday.

“The Judicial Branch is continuously recruiting juvenile detention workers and will be hiring another class with a minimum of 10 new hires this fall,” he added.

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