Prison Faces Fines After Members Speak Up About Workplace Safety

Dignity was restored to an AFSCME Local 2620 member at the California State Prison in Lancaster after the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health issued three large fines for the prison for failing to uphold basic safety standards.

Cal/OSHA fined the prison several thousand dollars for multiple violations, including not following basic workplace safety procedures and failing to implement effective policies for preventing dangerous inmates from attacking workers.

While the member was badly injured, the Cal/OSHA victory speaks to the fact that, when one of our members is hurt or done wrong on her job, our union has the power to hold an employer accountable and force change to happen.

"It's important that we won this case because prison administration dropped the ball," said Nadine Roberson-Jones, the lead AFSCME steward at the prison. "There were no corrections officers in the building when our member was attacked, which is why we're trying to get them to improve the safety in that place. It's not as safe as it could be."

The signs that something dangerous could happen were apparent well before the attack, which took place in April 2017, according to the local.

The day before the incident happened, one of the inmates at the prison threatened the member. According to the incident report, the member reported the threats to the prison and the inmate was questioned, but no other action was taken.

On the following day when the member—a recreation therapist—was holding a group session, the inmate who had threatened her the day before apparently snuck in the group and viciously attacked the member, according to the report.

She was hospitalized and still hasn't returned to work.

At first, the administration at the prison tried to blame the member for the attack, the local said. Unsatisfied with the administration's lack of empathy, the members rallied together, contacted their union representative and filed a complaint with Cal/OSHA in July 2017.

Cal/OSHA conducted an investigation over several months and in March agreed with our members that the prison had created a hazardous work environment for employees. The violations included:

  • Not requiring employees to wear a whistle and alarm while working in the presence of inmates
  • Not having adequate training on the employer's workplace violence prevention program
  • Not implementing effective procedures for controlling inmate movement
  • Not maintaining an effective system to notify employees of the disposition of inmates after violent incidents occur

"The employer did not have a system for ensuring that employees comply with safe work practices," the Cal/OSHA report concluded.

This wasn't the first time that Local 2620 made complaints about workplace safety at the prison.

Local leaders had filed grievances and made other complaints before. But it took a serious incident like this to force members to say enough is enough.

"This puts us on the front-line, especially because we are often victimized due to simply doing our job," said Local 2620 President Abdul Johnson. "It's important that we not only continue to file complaints with Cal/OSHA, but we also think proactively about legislation that further protects our members."

Since the fines were issued, more changes have come about at the prison, Roberson-Jones said.

Members are now engaged in the Health and Safety Committee at the institution. Members have also been working with the warden and fire chief to make work spaces safer for employees who provide clinical and health services for inmates.

In addition, 10 new stewards have been trained at the facility.

Johnson said the Lancaster prison currently has more stewards than any other prison in the state and is currently at 90% membership.

"They embraced the AFSCME Strong challenge and are well on their way to 100% union membership," Johnson said.