PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Rhode Island correctional officers are increasingly working 32 hours straight, with the number of such marathon shifts more than doubling since 2016, a Target 12 review of state data reveals.
The Rhode Island Brotherhood of Correctional Officers’ union contract allows its members to volunteer to work four consecutive eight-hour shifts, for a total of 32 hours in a row. The practice is known as working a “quad.”
Officers at the Adult Correctional Institutions (ACI) worked 1,930 marathon shifts in 2016, then 3,129 in 2017 and 4,206 in 2018, according to data supplied by the R.I. Department of Corrections (DOC).
The number of individual officers who took at least one 32-hour shift also climbed, from 271 in 2016 to 343 in 2017 and 355 in 2018. The ACI had 964 full-time employees as of last year, according to R.I. Department of Administration spokesperson Brenna McCabe.
There is a financial incentive: correctional officers earn time-and-a-half pay for overtime between eight and 16 hours, and the rate spikes to double time for hours between 16 and 32 hours, according to Richard Ferruccio, the head of the correctional officers’ union.
However, Ferruccio argued quads represent a small percentage of the DOC’s overall $30.4 million in 2018 overtime costs, an amount that has spiked sharply in recent years. He attributed the rise in marathon shifts to a previous hiring freeze that diminished the ranks at the ACI. He emphasized that “every one of those quads was filling a shift, filling a post, in the facilities.”
“Every one of those posts needs to be staffed to operate our prisons,” Ferruccio told Target 12. “So we have two choices: if we’re not offering people to do it voluntarily — which is the quads — we’re going to do it involuntarily.”
“It’s either one or the other,” he said.
While correctional officers get short breaks during their shifts, they are not allowed to sleep on the job, Ferruccio said.
J.R. Ventura, a spokesperson for the DOC, acknowledged that staffers are sometimes kept on for an additional shift if there are too many vacancies, but said “no employee is ordered to work beyond a double.”
“Anything beyond a double is completely voluntary, and because they volunteer for the extra work, the union allows those with higher seniority to bid for the extra shifts first,” Ventura said in an email.
“We do not force, or even encourage, people to work quads, but because it is contractual, there is little that can be changed,” he said. “As long as the shifts are safely covered, and the facility is secured, the specifics of who and for how long the CO’s work those shifts are governed, and lawfully protected, by their union contract.”
Ferruccio said the hiring freeze lasted for three years because the state was being sued by the U.S. Department of Justice over its testing process for potential recruits, which thinned the ranks and spiked overtime. Now that hiring has begun again in the wake of a settlement, he predicts that the number of quads worked in 2019 will be lower than 2018.
Expert warns of ‘neurocognitive impacts’
Dr. Jared Minkel, a sleep specialist at Rhode Island Hospital, said sleep is “a biological necessity, it’s not an option.”
“[It’s] something that other industries have found a way to manage,” Minkel said. “I think it’s important to use what they’ve learned and come up with, the best strategies they can, to offset the consequences of sleep deprivation.”
Among the symptoms of severe sleep deprivation are what Minkel calls “neurocognitive impacts,” including problems with attention, memory, reaction times and the ability to accurately interpret someone else’s emotions.
Minkel also said long-term wakefulness can cause the body to shut down, in what experts call a “sleep attack.”
“If you’re sleep deprived enough, sometimes there is no amount of willpower that can overcome that,” he said.
Ferruccio said in his 35 years on the job he could not recall “one situation where something bad happened because a correctional officer was on a third or a fourth shift.”
“We haven’t had an inmate escape, someone hurt because someone was inattentive,” Ferruccio said. “I don’t think anyone including the DOC wants to run our prison with triples and quads; ideally you want to have enough correctional officers.”
However, Ventura said four correctional officers have been terminated for falling asleep on the job in the last two years: three in 2018, and one in 2019.
Ferruccio said that was not necessarily related to quads. “I have also seen correctional officers fired for falling asleep on their first shift,” he said. “I’m not proud to say that. It’s nothing something we support or tolerate.”
‘I couldn’t fathom working more than 16 hours’
Other New England states put a tighter cap on how long correctional officers can be on the clock. In Maine, the limit is 15 to 18 hours depending on the assignment of the officer, a spokesperson said.
Vermont puts a 16-hour cap on hours worked. New Hampshire has no language in their policy or their union contract that limits shifts, but a spokesperson said that “all overtime worked must be approved by the appropriate supervisor in advance and documented.”
Jason Dobson, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Department of Correction, said while the Bay State has nothing codified in writing, “in practice we don’t allow anyone to do more than 16 hours.”
A former correctional officer himself, Dobson added, “I couldn’t fathom working more than 16 hours in a row.”
Ferruccio said if state leaders wanted to further limit how many hours an officer could work, that would have to be hashed out at the collective bargaining table.
“If we were to eliminate quads we would have to come up with some plan to replace it,” he said. “Otherwise we’re going to freeze more correctional officers in.”
Eli Sherman contributed to this report.