MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Safety has deteriorated at Wisconsin's prisons since workers lost union protections 14 months ago, creating an environment that's led to seven assaults of guards since Christmas Eve, the head of the state employees union told lawmakers Wednesday.
"In general, corrections workers feel devalued and at risk," Wisconsin State Employees Union executive director Marty Beil told the Assembly Corrections Committee.
His testimony contrasted that of Corrections Secretary Ed Wall, who said earlier during the hearing that there had been no serious assaults of prison workers in the past 10 months. That's when the department started a new method of tracking such attacks. Previously all assaults were reported only at the prison, and now they are all sent to the secretary's office, Wall said.
After the hearing, Wall wouldn't comment on the specific cases Beil raised, other than to say he was aware of them and none of the workers involved had been admitted to the hospital.
In one case, a worker at the maximum security prison in Waupun was stabbed on Christmas Eve through the cheek by an inmate with a pair of scissors. The inmate involved is serving a 10-year sentence for second-degree homicide. Online court records show he has not been charged in the stabbing.
Beil said he's heard no updates about the attack since it happened.
"The department needs to reassure workers and show a little empathy for them," he said after the hearing.
The issue of worker safety at Wisconsin's prisons has taken on greater focus following passage of the law in 2011 that effectively ended collective bargaining for most public workers and forced them to pay more for health insurance and pension benefits.
New workplace rules, written and put in place by Gov. Scott Walker's administration, took effect for prison employees in January 2012.
Beil said that resulted in a "massive sea change in work rules and working conditions and ultimately the working environment." As an example, he said jobs that used to be filled based on seniority no longer are, training is lacking and the formal process for raising work site concerns has been replaced with a less effective system.
And given a large number of vacancies, some workers are putting in so much overtime that they are spending more time with the inmates they guard than their own families, Beil said.
"This isn't a healthy situation," he said.
Wall told the committee that the roughly 10,000 workers in Wisconsin's prisons are feeling the stress of vacant positions and being forced to work overtime to fill shifts.
"Our men and women are tired," Wall said.
The percentage of vacant jobs in the department, fueled by a spike in retirements in 2011, more than doubled from 2.7 percent in 2008 to 5.7 percent in 2012, said Stacey Rolston, an administrator at the Corrections Department.
WSEU is one of three Wisconsin councils of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. It currently has about 1,900 members at the Department of Corrections, Beil said.
An effort is under way by some of the prison workers, game wardens and others classified as security and public safety workers to break away from WSEU and start their own union. An election could be scheduled for later this year.
Beil declined to comment on that effort. A Waupun guard who is leading the drive to break away, Brian Cunningham, was not at work Wednesday afternoon and could not immediately be reached for comment.
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