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Correctional officers union claims victory in labor dispute with state

Jerzy Shedlock

The president of the Alaska Correctional Officers Association has won a battle for reparations against his bosses in the Department of Corrections, although the victory happened outside the courtroom.

According to a letter from the ACOA to its members and provided to Alaska Dispatch, union president Randall McLellan "got his stripes back" and is receiving wages he lost due to a demotion and 96-hour suspension.

McLellan, a vocal critic of the DOC leadership, filed a lawsuit against Corrections Commissioner Joseph Schmidt and Director of Institutions Bryan Brandenburg in January, alleging a "systematic course of harassment" as retribution for his advocacy on behalf of corrections officers.

The law office representing McLellan moved to dismiss the case with prejudice last month. Each party agreed to pay their own costs related to the legal battle, according to a federal affidavit. According to the ACOA letter, the lawsuit was resolved a day before union arbitration on McLellan's demotion was set to begin.

McLellan's suit accused the Department of Corrections' top officials of violating his civil rights and improperly pepper-spraying him as part of a "retraining" effort. The lawsuit further alleged that Schmidt and Brandenburg kept a secret personnel file on McLellan, told other officers to "watch" him, targeted him for unfair discipline and denied him business leave for union responsibilities. They also allegedly denied McLellan higher positions in the department and offered those jobs to less-qualified individuals -- even demoting McLellan, according to the complaint.

McLellan was seeking more than $100,000 in restitution. He did not get that large lump sum but did receive pay for time during which he was suspended, the association letter says.

"The state reached out to me for settlement and though I cannot comment on the details I am happy with the settlement offered," McLellan said. "I believe this settlement is a victory for Alaska correctional officers as it secures protections for them in the future. Personally, it has been a long haul for my family. ... It is nice to have our lives back."

McLellan has worked for the Department of Corrections since 1997, long before then-Gov. Sarah Palin appointed Schmidt commissioner in December 2006.

While ACOA offered no official comment, its letter details two "vindictive and unfounded disciplines imposed upon Randy":

First, a 96-hour suspension McLellan received for failing to pick up outgoing inmate mail. The union has claimed since the beginning of the legal battle and again in the letter that DOC management spent an entire week reviewing video recordings of McLellan on the job "in hopes of find something to discipline him for."

He was originally suspended for 84 hours, but when McLellan realized he'd been monitored, he commented that his bosses' actions were "pathetic," a response the union says prompted the leadership to tack on 12 additional hours to his suspension. The suspension has been reversed and McLellan received pay for the unwanted time off, the letter says.

Second, a demotion. The letter says McLellan was demoted after an unruly inmate was pepper-sprayed. The inmate (who, according to the association's letter, had nearly beaten his father to death) was kicking an outward-opening jail cell door, preventing corrections officers from locking him up. When the inmate kicked the cell door a third time, McLellan pepper-sprayed the inmate.

"It was as routine and normal a spraying as any in the DOC, but management used it as grounds for walking him out of his institution like a criminal and then demoting him," the letter says, suggesting that McLellan's rank of sergeant has been reinstated.

Although ACOA declined comment, the letter -- emailed to union members Thursday -- commended corrections officers for stepping forward to support McLellan. According to the letter, more than 55 corrections officers were prepared to testify on McLellan's behalf.

"That so many were willing to stand up for Randy and for the rights of all correctional officers in spite of the risk says much about the character and integrity of Alaska's correctional officers," the letter says. "Without officers willing to testify, this universal settlement would not have been possible. ... This truly is a victory for all correctional officers."

 


By JERZY SHEDLOCK
Alaska Dispatch