CRANSTON, R.I. — Later this month, the union for correctional officers in Rhode Island will hold a week of events at the Adult Correctional Institutions in Cranston to recognize their profession.
Advocates for inmates want them to cancel it. The Rhode Island Brotherhood of Correctional Officers events, which includes correctional officers’ family members taking tours of the facility as well as scheduling changes to accommodate the festivities, have sometimes provoked criticism from inside the prison complex in Cranston. One years-long tradition that will continue in a modified way this year: Family members of officers touring the facilities. But it’s especially acute this year with the Delta variant complicating the state’s COVID-19 pandemic recovery.
“It’s a hard job, where it becomes objectionable is when it has a direct and significant impact on the lives of prisoners and the people whom they have sworn to protect and rehabilitate,” said Natalia Friedlander, a lawyer for the Rhode Island Center for Justice.
The events are scheduled to start Monday, Sept. 20, with a breakfast, and run until Friday. They’ll also have a ceremony on Tuesday for officers who were killed in the line of duty. It’s an annual tradition going back years, but it was canceled last year for the pandemic. It will be back on this year. A posting on the union’s Facebook page says during certain times, “facilities will be locked down.”
Richard Ferruccio, president of the union, said that’s not quite right to say that facilities will be locked down. Instead, it will mean changes in the schedule to accommodate the events. Inmates might be locked down for longer in the day than they otherwise would have, Ferruccio acknowledged, but it will not be a major difference — 20 or 30 minutes, he estimated.
Ferruccio also said they debated not having the tours this year, which in previous years have attracted hundreds of family members. But they decided to do it to recognize the difficult year corrections officers have had. A correctional officer, Lt. Russell Freeman, died of COVID-19, a line of duty death.
To accommodate the pandemic, they’ll be modifying the events and this year won’t be going into housing units, Ferruccio said. Everyone will be wearing masks.
“We’re very proud of what the officers do,” Ferruccio said. “I truly wish we could show the public what we do.”
J.R. Ventura, a spokesman for the Department of Corrections, said most of the areas where tours will take place won’t have inmates present.
“CO week is about the men and women who work here and their loved ones,” Ventura said. “During that week, the secure facilities operate under a modified schedule. Inmates still have recreational time that day, they still come out and for the most part, their schedules follow their normal routine.”
Joseph Shepard, a former inmate who was released last year and spent several years in prison, said he remembers the CO appreciation week events well. The tours in particular were humiliating, he said.
“Like we were the Roger Williams Zoo,” he said. “Like you’re an animal behind the glass.”
He served six years and nine months for felony assault. He had originally been charged with murder after accusations that he struck a man with his car in a gang confrontation. He said he was just trying to get away from a chaotic situation.
While the correctional officers’ union says they’ve gotten little blowback from the events, Shepard said he raised concerns about it on the inside. He takes a dim view of correctional officers in general.
“It should be stopped, even without COVID,” he said. “What’s the point of it?”