Last April 15th I attended a Vermont Correctional Academy graduation ceremony. Twenty one people completed the four-week residential training. Contrary to what is portrayed on TV shows, corrections work is highly skilled. Not long after graduating, new officers are supervising dangerous, violent individuals. Their training instructs them to be a good role model and to protect inmates from themselves and other inmates. Corrections work is also assisting inmates who want to change their behavior. Demanding, difficult and often dangerous work, it’s not employment anyone can do.
Academy graduation ceremonies often include politicians who laud the work corrections employees do and the skill with which they do it. State officials offer handshakes and high praise. But what the state does not offer its new officers are benefits or health insurance. That’s because new correctional officers are hired as temporary employees and not permitted any benefits by the state. Part of each new CO’s job is to ensure that inmates have access to the 100% free medical care the state provides to all inmates. That’s right; $16 million dollars annually of taxpayer money to ensure that the 1600 Vermont inmates have complete, comprehensive, medical care, including mental health services. There’s no cost to inmates or their families, even the inmates that have money pay nothing. But, there’s not enough money to offer health insurance to new correctional officers? They can’t be part of the state employee plan? Why not? They take the same risks. If a new correctional officer is stressed they cannot receive help from the Employee Assistance Program; it’s part of the health plan they are prohibited from. A new correctional officer has to report to work even if sick or they will lose a day’s pay. They don’t get sick leave. They must ignore Health Dept. signage telling employees to “stay home when sick”. They can’t afford to.
Last week I attended part of the Legislative Corrections Oversight Committee meeting. The room was packed with inmate advocates, all there to ensure there were enough programs and services for women inmates. Legislators, advocates and Corrections officials all expressed a genuine desire to see that inmates had social, economic and medical services in place, both while incarcerated and when transitioned to the community. Someone voiced concern that correctional officers receive enough training to better work with inmates. I would follow that concern by asking if we could at least have the same concern that the very staff charged with ensuring inmates’ well being doesn’t receive basic benefits themselves? Hoping State leaders remember that they into office on the “Health Care Is A Human Right” wave, and that not all Corrections employees have this benefit. As a start, please provide it to them.