Locked out

Jailers fired by chief who says there isn’t enough work

During the first week of February, a group of Atlanta corrections officers gathered for their normal morning roll call and heard good news.

They were told that no one from the city’s Department of Corrections would lose their jobs because of Atlanta’s $80 million-plus budget shortfall.

But a few days later, Deputy Chief Roland Lane talked to 10 corrections officers one by one and told them they needed to meet with the chief the next day. On Feb. 13, those 10 officers were fired, because, as their termination papers state, there’s not enough work for them at the city detention center.

The firings have provoked a minor uprising among the corrections staff. They claim they are overworked to the point where the jail is dangerously short-staffed. Moreover, they note that less critical administrative employees weren’t fired, and suggest that their chief was merely trying to look good for new Mayor Shirley Franklin.

The 10 correctional officers are part of a mounting human cost, people done in by the nasty math of a recession combined with amazing fiscal mismanagement during former Mayor Bill Campbell’s final years in office. Unlike the dismissal of a middle-management City Hall paper pusher, however, the impact of in certain city departments stands to impact everyday Atlantans, the same people who will see their taxes increase with the 2002 budget adopted by City Council Monday.

Besides the correctional officers, all 35 of Atlanta’s park workers — those folks who pick up trash and maintain the parks — have been dismissed by the city. As of Friday, also ousted are code enforcers from the Bureau of Neighborhood Preservation, an already understaffed agency that brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines last year and is charged with keeping Atlanta neighborhoods livable.

Add to the equation the potential elimination of $4 million that covers overtime in the fire department’s budget and keeps it from being undermanned on its engines, and it doesn’t take a soothsayer to see the potential for damage to the quality of life in Atlanta in the coming year.

The assertion that jailers don’t have enough to do appears contrary to one important fact. Over the last two years, the department has overspent its budget by about $8 million just because of overtime. Jailers say there was too much work and not enough people to do it.

The terminated — and pissed off — officers and their union representative think they’ve been canned because their chief is posturing in front of his new mayor and didn’t care how he made the 20 percent cuts she required.

But Chief Tom Pocock says that he intends to bring back all the laid-off — his words — employees, and suggests that the cuts were the best of a group of bad options.

Meanwhile, correctional officers still left at the jail — about 400 altogether — say the firings make the facility unsafe. Sometimes there aren’t enough people on duty to properly answer distress calls, they say.

Pocock says the Campbell administration acknowledged that there was a “shortage of staffing” at the jail. However, the department was saddled with budgets that didn’t allow for more hiring. The expensive alternative was overtime.

Pocock says the new plan is to get around some of the staffing problems by moving federal inmates at the old, 518-bed jail annex next door into the new facility on Peachtree Street in exchange for 48 percent — about 500 — of the Atlanta inmates. The new setup will allow more inmates to be supervised by fewer correctional officers, he says.

The problem is that the jail’s population often balloons to near 1,600 during the summer, which would mean that about 800 inmates would be competing for 518 beds.

Pocock doesn’t have an easy answer for that problem, but says: “We will stay on top of it shift by shift, day by day, so that we don’t compromise the safety of the employees or the inmates.”

Mayor Franklin, in announcing belt-tightening and tax increases, said she would avoid cutting public safety personnel. But Pocock says that that’s where the cuts had to come from, because 88 percent of his budget is devoted to paying personnel.

Sgt. Ellis A. Williams, the union representative for the officers, whose group Pocock suggests erroneously spread word that no one would lose their jobs, doesn’t buy it.

“We don’t deserve to be the stepchild of public safety,” he says.

The 10 firings from Corrections save the city more than $300,000, and it is coupled with the elimination of 18 vacant positions. Total personnel savings in the department add up to more than $1 million. The department, though, did not trim any civilian staff.

And Pocock’s promise that he intends to bring back all the officers laid off doesn’t do much to allay the fears of employees still working at the jail, where an officer can work inmate intake in the detention center and find himself and two colleagues working in a room of 150 or more detainees, says Officer M. Crowe. “We’re talking about work safety and not only for the officers,” she says.

Last week, Williams held out hope that Franklin might immediately restore the positions: “We are hurting, and our only hope is Shirley Franklin.”

Franklin says she relied on Pocock to make the 20 percent cut to his budget and that those cuts would still allow the jail to operate safely. She doesn’t, however, say every cut is final.

“I’m planning to stay in touch with it,” she says. “I want to hear complaints.”