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‘My Job is Dangerous Every Day. But COVID-19 Has Elevated that Threat’

By Jessica Powell ·
‘My Job is Dangerous Every Day. But COVID-19 Has Elevated that Threat’

Editor’s Note: The following is a story from the front lines of the battle against the coronavirus. During National Correctional Officers and Employees Week, we feature the story of AFSCME Local 1565 (Council 4) member Steve Wales from Connecticut. Wales was one of three corrections officers who urged Congress last week to help financially strapped state and local governments.

“My name is Steve Wales and I am a corrections officer at the Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Center in Uncasville, Connecticut. Local 1565 represents correctional staff throughout Connecticut.

“In Connecticut, 326 correction officers and 417 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 and these numbers continue to rise.

“Like many jails and prisons across the nation, ours has become a petri dish for the virus to spread. Our maximum-security facility houses roughly a thousand inmates – from murderers serving multiple life sentences for their crimes to those awaiting trial for DUI.

“Those who are symptomatic or have tested positive for COVID-19 are housed in a separate building and are not allowed out of their cells. Those who are not sick are housed in the general population unit and are allowed out of their cells for 30 minutes per day to shower and to make a phone call.

“But once their time is up, they do not want to return to their cells. And they are becoming violent when we enforce this rule.

“This year marks my 20-year career as a corrections officer. My job is dangerous every day. But COVID-19 has elevated the threat. As fear and anxiety take over, tensions are running high and we are facing a horrifying scene inside of our facility. The inmates have a heightened disregard for authority and as a result, they are attempting to escape the prison and are even staging attacks on officers.

“[Recently], three inmates attacked two corrections officers. Following the attack, the inmates admitted that they were trying to escape and we have reason to believe they may have been trying to help other inmates escape as well.

“My fellow officers and I understand that the inmates feel trapped and terrified. Because of this, we’ve also become counselors at work. We’re trying to reassure the inmates that the increased precautions are for their safety as well as ours. We don’t want anyone getting sick – I have a wife and kids at home and it’s my job to make sure they remain safe and healthy, too. My co-workers share in the same fear, we’re worried about exposing our families.

“Over the years, I’ve had numerous injuries from work that required a couple of back surgeries or left me with a broken a hand. These injuries didn’t necessarily affect my family but coronavirus is a different story. My fellow officers and I know that by going to work, we are putting our loved ones at risk and that weighs on us heavily.

“Some officers have even self-quarantined and are living in hotels right now. Fortunately, the state eventually agreed to cover this expense, but these officers are still missing out on valuable time that could be spent with their families.

“At our facility, we are still short on personal protective equipment. The state only recently distributed N-95 masks just last week. But COVID-19 hit us six weeks ago. Before the N95 masks arrived, the inmates in our industries program made canvas masks which were distributed to the inmates, and leftovers were then given to staff.

“Because so many officers are currently out sick with COVID-19, we are dangerously understaffed. Overtime is now mandatory and as a result, I have worked 40 days straight, with most of those being 16-hour workdays. And I’m not the only one.

“There are a lot of us here in Connecticut who are outraged that we have legislators in our state minimizing the sacrifice made by public workers through this crisis. They are pressuring the governor to hold off on an upcoming scheduled 3.5% pay raise for state employees – the same employees who are on the front lines protecting our communities right now.

“We are putting our lives on the line every day. We do this because it is our duty to protect our communities and simply because we care. It is absolutely disgusting and disrespectful to devalue public service workers when we do not even have adequate PPE or sufficient funding to support our work.

“The COVID-19 pandemic shows why it’s crucial to guarantee funding for our state government programs and that's why we're calling on Congress to provide robust funding for state and local governments.”

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