CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) — Calling the marathon 32-hour shifts pulled by hundreds of Rhode Island correctional officers every year “unsafe,” the new head of the state prisons said Thursday there should be a tighter cap on how many hours can be worked consecutively.
R.I. Department of Corrections Director Patricia Coyne-Fague said in the last two contract negotiations with the Rhode Island Brotherhood of Correctional Officers (RIBCO) union the department’s leaders have attempted to do away with language that allows its members to work what is known as a “quad” — four shifts in a row, totaling 32 hours straight.
“It’s not safe,” Coyne-Fague told Target 12 in a phone interview. “I don’t know anyone who can stay up for that period of time and be top notch.”
As Target 12 revealed on Wednesday, correctional officers are increasingly working 32 hours straight, with the number of such marathon shifts more than doubling since 2016.
“Each side in the contract negotiations have a wish list,” Coyne-Fague said. “You get some of things you want and some you don’t. We just didn’t get there.”
The current contract expires in June 2020.
A spokesperson confirmed the department has terminated four correctional officers in the last two years for falling asleep on the job. Coyne-Fague said she knows at least one of them was accused of falling asleep during the fourth shift of a quad.
“My goal is to keep the place safe, and if officers are asleep it’s not going to be safe for the people who work there, who live there and the people on the outside,” she said.
RIBCO President Richard Ferruccio said Coyne-Fague is taking a harder line on disciplining dozing officers than her predecessor, A.T. Wall, who retired in January 2018. (Coyne-Fague took over as interim director after Wall’s departure, and was named the permanent replacement this past February.)
“New director, new rules,” Ferruccio said. “A.T. Wall was probably more comfortable being director and believed in giving someone a second chance.”
Coyne-Fague said not every case has led to a termination, but added that “one of the most significant responsibilities I have is public safety.”
“I, too, believe in second chances,” Coyne-Fague said. “But there are cases of misconduct where I refuse to risk public safety.”
She declined to provide specific details about the termination cases or names but said “each case had a particularly egregious aspect to them where I was unwilling to take the risk of the conduct again.”
Ferruccio told Target 12 that he is unaware of any risk to public safety that has happened as a result of a tired correctional officer.
“We haven’t had an inmate escape, or someone hurt because someone was inattentive because of a third or fourth shift,” he said.
Coyne-Fague’s response: “I can’t rely on luck to keep people safe.”
The director agreed with Ferruccio that more correctional officers would likely be forced to work a second shift if the department does away with quads, but she said 32 hours on the clock is too risky.
“I think the job of a correctional officer is a difficult job, and I think that more than the vast majority, they do a great job,” she said. “It’s not an easy job.”
The prison’s Code of Ethics and Conduct classifies sleeping on duty as a “dereliction of duty” which may “subject employees to disciplinary sanctions up to and including termination.”
A Target 12 review of data supplied by the department found correctional officers worked 1,930 marathon shifts in 2016, then 3,129 in 2017 and 4,206 in 2018.
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.
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 Ferruccio.
Ferruccio 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.”
The hiring freeze was as a result of a lawsuit by the U.S. Department of Justice over its testing process for potential recruits.
Ferruccio said now that the legal dispute is resolved and recruiting correctional officers are being hired again, he anticipates the number of quads to ebb.
Target 12 found some other New England states put a tighter cap on how long correctional officers can be on the clock. The limit in Maine is 15 to 18 hours, and the limit in Vermont is 16.
A spokesman for the Massachusetts Department of Correction said the Bay State has an informal policy that bars anyone from working more than 16 hours.