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At R.I. state prison, number of 32-hour shifts — and overtime costs — not much improved over last year

The state says the 32-hour “quad” overtime shifts aren’t the best way to fill necessary shifts; the correctional officers union says someone has to to work, and it’s better to get willing volunteers.

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

PROVIDENCE — New year, same story: Rhode Island correctional officers worked more than 5,000 four-in-a-row “quad” shifts in the last year at the prison complex in Cranston, contributing to huge overtime costs and prompting safety and health concerns.

In the 12-month fiscal year — from July 1, 2021 to June 30, 2022 — Rhode Island correctional officers worked 5,220 of these shifts, which last 32 hours straight. That’s a little lower than the number of quads that the state Department of Corrections reported in the 2021 fiscal year, when officers worked 5,352 of them.

The total amount of overtime collected by Department of Corrections employees was $31.4 million, also a shade under the previous fiscal year.

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The Department of Corrections runs the state prison complex in Cranston, called the Adult Correctional Institutions. It has said for years that it is trying to do away with quads. That change would have to go through the collective bargaining process, because the Brotherhood of Correctional Officers union has a contract that protects their right to volunteer to work them. They are lucrative opportunities for anyone willing to put in the hours: After one shift, they get paid time and a half, and after two, they get paid double time. But they’re also a problem, the state says.

“I can’t think of an endeavor of any kind that you really can be top notch after 32 hours,” Patricia Coyne-Fague, the director of the state Department of Corrections, said in an interview. “I am troubled by the prevalence of some officers who like to work quads. I don’t think it’s healthy for them. Even though I do think they do a great job, it’s still dangerous, frankly, because you have someone who’s very tired, trying to do what is a very important and difficult job.”

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The Department of Corrections says a shortage of correctional officers is to blame for the high overtime costs, with the number of new applicants dropping from thousands to hundreds. The most recent academy graduated about 50 new officers; just a few years ago, that number was 80.

But quads, the state says, aren’t the best way to fill necessary shifts. The state’s contract offer to the union would “remedy” the issue of quads, Coyne-Fague said.

The Brotherhood of Correctional Officers said getting rid of quads would have unintended consequences: You need someone to work the shifts, and it’s better to get volunteers willing to work three or four shifts than to force people who aren’t willing to stay longer for two. That’s how you burn out and lose staff, the union argues.

“The alternative (to triples and quads) is, someone’s working — someone’s getting frozen in,” Richard Ferruccio, president of the Brotherhood of Correctional Officers, said in an interview.

“Freezing in” correctional officers, or forcing them to work overtime, has become a perennial problem too, Ferruccio said. Officers typically can only be frozen in for one extra shift, but Ferruccio said it’s happened on occasion for more than one extra shift, too. The Department of Corrections said forcing someone to work more than one overtime shift is “extremely rare.”

Overtime at the ACI has helped make some correctional officers among the highest-paid employees in the state. Anthony J. Lucca, a correctional officer, added more than $235,000 in overtime to his base salary to bring him to nearly $340,000 in pay in the 2022 fiscal year, making him the fifth-highest-paid state employee in Rhode Island. Mark Wilbur, as in years past, was also in the top 10 highest-paid state employees with the help of $242,000 in overtime wages. Thirty-two corrections employees made at least $100,000 in overtime in the 2022 fiscal year. Most state employees in the top 20 for overtime in the 2022 fiscal year were corrections officers.

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To people like Joe Shepard, currently at the maximum security facility after police said they arrested him with a gun, the overtime situation highlights the misguided priorities in Rhode Island. In Shepard’s opinion, the corrections union holds significant political sway and gets in the way of change.

“The sad part isis, the purpose and mission of these facilities is true and proper rehabilitation,” Shepard, an outspoken activist on prison and criminal justice issues, said in a letter from the ACI. “Now it has become a business best described as the ‘New Jim Crow.’”

Shepard said that the ACI has retaliated against him for filing litigation and raising issues about the prison, claims the Department of Corrections has denied.

The Department of Corrections, meanwhile, says that although it is trying to do away with quads, the prison is safe and well managed.

But several recent disciplinary episodes, including one court case, show the difficulty that the system has had in policing the ranks, and keeping them awake.

For instance, in 2018, the state tried to fire a correctional officer named Matthew Laurence. According to court records, Laurence, who was working a quad, brought his truck to a shady area and, with two service weapons in his possession, fell asleep while he was supposed to be guarding the perimeter. A supervisor found Laurence with his eyes closed and head down before waking him up.

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The Brotherhood of Correctional Officers challenged Laurence’s firing, however. Thirty-seven correctional officers, including the supervisor who found him asleep, had signed a petition asking Coyne-Fague to spare Laurence’s job. An independent arbitrator sided with Laurence, citing, among other things, evidence that Laurence didn’t intentionally sleep on the job, but instead accidentally dozed off. She ordered him reinstated and to serve a four-day unpaid suspension.

The Department of Corrections went to court to try to keep Laurence fired. According to Coyne-Fague, Laurence moved out of state during the litigation, bringing it to a close. As part of the settlement, the state paid him $123,339.18 in lost wages and overtime for the period he’d been terminated.

In another recent episode, the state disclosed that it had investigated nine officers for possible dereliction of duty involving sleeping on the job. Two cases were dismissed, and seven were sustained. The state said this month that it couldn’t get into specific details about these personnel matters, but the discipline ranged from written reprimands to suspensions. None were fired.

The Department of Corrections did recently notch a legal victory in its efforts to police the use of sick time without a valid reason. It goes back to its years-long efforts to implement a new policy to crack down on chronic absenteeism. The new policy ranged from tracking “patterns” of sick time abuse better, to changing the way discipline was handed out for abusing it. Sick time abuse led to other officers having to fill their colleagues’ shifts, including working overtime, the Department of Corrections said.

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The Brotherhood challenged the policy changes, saying that the department needed to bargain with them first. And the state Labor Relations Board sided with them, preventing the state from putting the new policy into effect. But the Department of Corrections went to court and on Aug. 2, Rhode Island Superior Court Judge Jeffrey A. Lanphear sided with the state, finding that it did not have to negotiate the changes with the union.

Ferruccio, the union’s president, said they are considering appealing that decision, and was leaning toward doing so.

Overtime and quads are a perennial story in Rhode Island. But the hot topic at the prison right now is the cooling system, especially at maximum security, a 140-year-old building that has window-unit air conditioners in only a few places, like where medications and security equipment are kept. This summer has been punishingly hot in Maximum Security, according to inmates there, and the state American Civil Liberties Union said it received complaints, including about no longer having “misters” in the yard. Inmates who can’t afford to have fans are “out of luck,” Steven Brown, the group’s executive director, said in an Aug. 8 message to Coyne-Fague. And people in segregation don’t have fans or windows that open to the outside, he said.

“With high temperatures expected to continue into the immediate future — and in recognition that climate change has made this a long-term issue — I would appreciate any information you could provide on the steps that the Department has taken and is taking to keep inmates safe from heat-related illnesses during these prolonged stretches of hot weather,” Brown said.

The department said the system is doing what it can to address the conditions. Coyne-Fague told Brown in response that “there have been no known incidents of heat exhaustion and no requests for medical care related to heat exhaustion.” And, Coyne-Fague and Ferruccio both noted in interviews, it’s not just inmates but also guards who are in these conditions.

“It’s in no one’s interest to make people suffer,” Coyne-Fague said.


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