June 17, 2004 – V.I. Justice Department officials on Thursday asked the Territorial Court to grant a temporary restraining order against more than 60 guards and a number of supervisors who they say walked off the job at the Golden Grove Correctional Facility on St. Croix starting Wednesday night.
Top Justice officials are accusing the guards of mounting an illegal strike and the director of the Corrections Bureau warned on Thursday that those who did not return to duty immediately would face termination.
Thirty-two prison guards and a lieutenant called in sick at the start of the 12-hour shift that began at 11 p.m. Wednesday. At the start of the 11 a.m. Thursday shift, again 32 corrections officers stayed away, leaving the Corrections Bureau director, John Trawick, commanding a prison lockdown with seven officers and as many supervisors as he could round up on short notice.
"These corrections officers apparently one after the other called in sick and left us in the lurch," Attorney General Iver Stridiron said on Thursday. "Unfortunately, on the 11 a.m. to the 11 p.m. shift, which is the shift today, they have done the same thing."
The Corrections Bureau falls within the Justice Department, which Stridiron heads.
According to Stridiron, there are currently about 510 prisoners housed at the Golden Grove facility, and the total number of corrections personnel is about 180. On average, there are about 36 guards working on any given shift, he said.
Late Thursday afternoon, Justice officials filed a request in Territorial Court seeking a temporary restraining order, a preliminary injunction and a permanent injunction against the absent corrections officers and the union representing them. The restraining order request cites Title 24, Section 375(c) of the V.I. Code, prohibiting certain categories of government personnel from striking under any circumstances.
"Class III employees are prohibited from work stoppages and strikes for even the shortest periods of time because of the risk to the health and safety of the community," the document reads.
Stridiron said he expects the court to act on the request Friday, either by granting the restraining order or by convening a meeting of the parties involved to hear their arguments before issuing a ruling.
With some of the skeleton staff having been on the job for nearly 24 straight hours, Stridiron said, he asked other law-enforcement agencies to place personnel on standby in case their services are needed at Golden Grove on an emergency basis.
"I would strongly recommend to the corrections officers — for the sake of their fellow corrections officers who could be endangered, and for the sake of this community and the inmate population — that they report to work," Stridiron said Thursday night. "We are not taking this matter lightly. We believe it endangers people and endangers this community, and we will do whatever is required, including punishing those who illegally engage in job actions."
Eugene Irish is the president of the local Seafarers Union, which represents the corrections officers. Efforts to reach him by telephone Thursday night were unsuccessful.
Tuesday Memo Cites Numerous Complaints
A memo dated June 15 — Tuesday — was sent by the St. Croix Bureau of Corrections officers to the "Warden and Management of Golden Grove Adult Correctional Facility." It lists grievances and alleged violations of the collective bargaining agreement between the unionized officers and the V.I. government.
The list cites prisoners holding keys to facilities that supervisors don't have access to, holes in the security fence surrounding Golden Grove, insufficient communications equipment and weapons; unsecured prison dormitories, lack of fire extinguishers, alleged occupational safety and health violations, inadequate restrooms; vermin and fire hazards.
At the top of the list are pay and work-shift issues. With recent cutbacks in overtime, the memo said, "due to shortages in personnel, officers are not able to take 15-minute breaks after four hours and have no opportunity throughout a 12-hour shift to get a meal."
The complaining officers also noted they are waiting for retroactive pay, wage increases and payments to cover the costs of uniforms.
As Stridiron sees it, the key issue is overtime. Through May this year, "we have paid the corrections officers — mostly on St. Croix — one half million dollars" in overtime, he said. "And yet they're not satisfied. The 12-hour shift cuts back on their overtime, so now they want to go back to the regular shifts they had, where they can work 24 hours a day if they want to and earn a heck of a lot of overtime."
The memo from the corrections officers "is nothing more than a red herring for what is their actual grievance," he charged.
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