Prison guards to vote on unionizing in Montgomery County

Posted: November 19, 2013

NORRISTOWN Some days at the Montgomery County Correctional Facility, officers there say, there are so few guards that only one is available to patrol the general population area for male inmates.

There are so few, they say, they sometimes can't take bathroom breaks and have to relieve themselves in garbage cans.

That personnel shortage accompanies more traditional workplace complaints from some of the county's 235 correctional officers - too little pay and shrinking benefits.

With those concerns in the background, Montgomery County correctional officers will vote soon on whether to allow the Teamsters to represent them in contract negotiations.

Montgomery County solicitor Ray McGarry said Friday that he could not comment "on any issue that could be seen as an issue related to the vote."

The vote, scheduled for Dec. 16, can't come too soon for some guards.

"The correctional officers are in desperate need of representation," said Chris O'Donnell, an organizer with Teamsters Local Union 384. "Working conditions are getting worse by the day."

The Montgomery County Correctional Facility is in Lower Providence Township on Eagleville Road. As of Friday, it housed 2,021 inmates - 340 women and 1,681 men, most of them awaiting trial or sentenced for less serious crimes. Capacity is 2,080.

O'Donnell said that some correctional officers had contacted him several months ago to ask about joining the Teamsters.

"This thing has morphed itself into a very, very quick union drive," O'Donnell said. "They've been losing entitlements they've had for years - whether it's because of the economy or because they don't have a union."

Only 13 percent of the county's 3,533-member workforce is represented in negotiations by a union, county spokeswoman Jessica Willingham said.

Among those who belong to unions are deputy sheriffs, probation officers, detectives, and the juvenile detention facility's equivalent of guards.

Several guards who described the conditions spoke with The Inquirer on the condition they not be named, because they said they feared backlash from management.

"Supervisors will actually say to officers, 'Are you yes or no to union?' " said one guard. "Nobody wants to speak up because they know that'll put a bull's-eye on our back."

Warden Julio M. Algarin was unavailable for comment.

O'Donnell and the guards contend that county commissioners historically have given fewer incentives to correctional officers, paying more attention to workers represented by unions in contract negotiations.

Salaries suggest a discrepancy among county public-safety workers.

The entry-level salary for a correctional officer is about $36,500, one said.

The starting pay for a Youth Center "secure detention counselor" and "family advocates" is $40,610, according to the county. Entry-level adult and juvenile probation officers make $40,783, while the similar pay for county detectives just starting out is $75,966.

That higher pay, McGarry said, is due to different skills and training detectives need. Deputy sheriffs start at $35,544.

Correctional officers said that, even though county commissioners gave them a raise toward the end of 2012 of about 2 percent - their first increase in years - they also lost three paid holidays, had sick time reduced, and have to pay more for health-care premiums.

But the biggest issue is a lack of officers to properly handle the prison population. "Dealing with the convicts," one guard said, "we're short probably at least 20 people or so."

In addition to roaming correctional officers, there also are guards in control rooms monitoring cameras and hallways.

Inmates get three meal breaks per day, guards said, but guards sometimes don't get even one over a shift that could last 12 hours.

O'Donnell said the drive for unionization wasn't personal against anyone. "Guards are suffering," he said. "They want to have somebody have their back."



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