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Marathon work shifts — and massive overtime payments — soar at R.I. state prison

Correctional officers earn plenty of OT for working quads, or 32-hour shifts during which they aren’t supposed to sleep. But managers, inmates, and even officers are concerned about the health and safety risks.

The Rhode Island Department of Corrections' Maximum Security Facility in Cranston.Rhode Island Department of Corrections

PROVIDENCE — The job is physical and demanding and important: Correctional officers at Rhode Island’s state prison in Cranston monitor their posts, keep track of inmate counts, and make sure the doors are locked. It requires constant vigilance.

Thousands of times a year, though, those officers are doing their jobs in marathon, 32-hour shifts, without sleep, pushing the bounds of health and safety.

In the fiscal year that ended in June, officers at the Adult Correctional Institutions worked 5,352 “quad” shifts, so named because they are four eight-hour shifts in a row. Though they get lunch breaks, they are not allowed to sleep on the job, even when their workday stretches past a full rotation of the Earth on its axis, plus another eight hours — nearly the amount of time that researchers keep subjects awake to run sleep deprivation experiments.

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The management at the prison has said for years that they’d like to do away with quads due to safety and health concerns, but they’re a contractual right, written into the correctional officers’ contract. They’re also lucrative: After one shift, correctional officers get paid time and a half. After two shifts, they get double time.

The overtime situation at the prisons has vaulted some correctional officers into the ranks of the highest-paid state employees: In the 2021 fiscal year, 30 out of the 100 highest-paid state employees worked in corrections, according to data through June 19. Thirty-nine correctional officers made at least $100,000 just in overtime. One earned more than $200,000 just in overtime, and another was close. For comparison: the governor’s salary is about $146,000 total.

Even the Rhode Island Brotherhood of Correctional Officers says quads aren’t the way anyone wants to run a prison. But nobody seems to be able stop them. In fact, they’re getting more common: The 5,352 quads worked in the 2021 fiscal year was 675 more than the number worked the year before, which itself was an increase of more than 1,000 quads from the year before that.

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“I don’t think it’s good for the officer, his or her family, or ultimately the system that we’re trying to run,” Patricia Coyne-Fague, director of the Department of Corrections, said in an interview this week. “I’d like to explore ways with the union to make it better.”

The ability of correctional officers to work 32 hours in a row is without precedent in the state, and uncommon if not entirely unique for a prison system, experts say.

Coyne-Fague said that the officers who work at the Cranston complex are dedicated and professional, and that the prisons remain a safe place. She said she’s hard-pressed to disagree with the union when it says it can’t link any specific negative outcomes to an exhausted officer at the end of a triple or quad. Management can send someone home if they’re not fit for duty. That rarely happens, Coyne-Fague said.

But, she added: “The reality is, I can’t think of any profession, any endeavor of any kind, where you could still be very sharp on a 32-hour stretch.”

The main barrier to doing away with 32-hour shifts is that correctional officers are allowed to do them under their collective bargaining agreement. The average officer did 6.4 quads in the 2021 fiscal year. Negotiations for the next contract with the Brotherhood of Correctional Officers are expected to start sometime later this year, and Coyne-Fague said doing something about quads was a priority of Governor Dan McKee’s administration.

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‘“I don’t think it’s good for the officer, his or her family, or ultimately the system that we’re trying to run ... The reality is, I can’t think of any profession, any endeavor of any kind, where you could still be very sharp on a 32-hour stretch.”’

Patricia Coyne-Fague, the director of the Department of Corrections

But not wanting to tip her hand in negotiations, Coyne-Fague stopped short of saying the state would try to do away with quads entirely at the bargaining table, only that it would try to “address” them in the contract. The heart of the issue, Coyne-Fague and the union agree, is that there aren’t enough correctional officers to fill vacant posts. The system had to stop adding COs for a period because of a hiring discrimination lawsuit, and has been trying to catch up since. A recent class of COs had 20 members. A normal class 10 years ago might have had three times that number.

But the numbers show it’s not just an issue of not enough workers: The prison system had only slightly fewer correctional officers in the 2021 fiscal year than it did in the 2020 fiscal year — an average of 838 COs for about 2,100 prisoners.

There’s also the issue of sick time. The Department of Corrections tried to put in place a new disciplinary policy to better track and police the use of sick time — essentially, to make sure officers who were calling out sick were actually sick. The Brotherhood filed a grievance and succeeded, a decision that the state is appealing.

Better policing of sick time use would save the state about $900,000, according to DOC estimates. And while the DOC says sick time abuse doesn’t account for all of those savings, it sometimes does happen, in part because of mindset: This is my time.

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“It’s very much a cultural mindset I’m trying to change,” Coyne-Fague said. “That sick time is for when you’re sick.”

Richard Ferruccio, the president of the Rhode Island Brotherhood of Correctional Officers, said in an interview that quads are “not the way we want to be running our prison.”

Yet he himself has worked quads in the past year, Ferruccio said. He’s generally drained for about a week after working one, he said. The overtime situation is why correctional officers tend to have high divorce rates, he said.

Still, they’re necessary, he said. Working a triple or a quad when an officer is willing to do so is better than having management “freeze in” another officer — in other words, make them work a double when they really don’t want to.

“I think the department would be mistaken if they were to try to eliminate triples and quads,” Ferruccio said.

Ferruccio took home about $118,000 in overtime in the fiscal year that ended at the end of June, according to payroll figures that are pretty close to being finalized. Correctional officers tend to have lower base salaries than other law enforcement, Ferruccio said. A 38-year veteran of the DOC, his base salary was about $79,000 in the 2021 fiscal year.

He is just one of 39 correctional officers who took home at least $100,000 just in overtime in the 2021 fiscal year, according to the not-yet-finalized data. The highest overtime total was Mark Wilbur, whose $212,000 in overtime brought his total pay to nearly $300,000 and made him the sixth-highest paid employee in the state in the 2021 fiscal year according to the latest figures. Paul T. Fetter Jr. and Errol Groff, at $283,000 and $282,000 in total pay, were ninth and 10th in the state thanks to large overtime bills.

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The payroll figures are current as of June 19, and the fiscal year ended at the end of June, so the data encompasses almost all of the 2021 fiscal year.

The numbers stand out from other law enforcement agencies. In the state Department of Public Safety, which includes state troopers, Capitol police, and sheriffs, no employee made more than $100,000 in overtime in the 2021 fiscal year according to the latest figures. The 611 employees in the Department of Public Safety pulled in about $6.5 million in overtime, compared to the roughly $32 million paid to the 1,465 people on the DOC’s payroll.

Experts who study the issue of fatigue in law enforcement say sleep deprivation has negative consequences, with more complaints filed against officers who had less sleep in the 24 hours before a shift.

Advocates for inmates and former inmates themselves say they notice a difference in the demeanor and competence of officers when they’re on a triple or a quad.

State Senator Tiara Mack, a Democrat from Providence, toured the prisons in the spring after proposing doing away with long-term solitary confinement. She also received a number of letters, many of which cited what inmates felt was disrespectful or unnecessary treatment by correctional officers. Some letters cited previous news stories about the use of quads.

“There is no way this is a safe environment that is predicated on rehabilitation for folks,” Mack said in an interview about her overall impression from her tour. “The folks who are in charge are not willing to see folks who are there as human beings.”

But her solitary confinement bill did not pass. Like the issue of overtime and quads, it won’t go anywhere because of the power of the Brotherhood of Correctional Officers, she believes.

“Until we address the power dynamics that exist between the Brotherhood and the Senate leadership,” she said, “I don’t think there’s any pathway toward change.”


Brian Amaral can be reached at brian.amaral@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bamaral44.