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Inmates in Nassau County’s Correction Center will continue to be supervised by civilian employees while working in the kitchens, a Nassau County judge has ruled, in denying a motion for a preliminary injunction halting the practice brought by the Nassau County Sheriff Officers union. In Sheriff Officers Association v. County of Nassau, 012520/07, Justice Daniel Martin ( See Profile) found that nothing in the job description of a correction officer says that one must “continuously and directly supervise the prisoners” working in the kitchens. The decision wil lbe published Friday. The union contends, however, that the kitchen is the place where armed officers are needed most as access to lethal weapons is unfettered. “This is a health and safety issue and we want to continue to have a correction officer in the kitchen,” John Duer, a corrections sergeant and president of the officers’ union, said in an interview. “The inmates have knives and cans with sharp lids – they basically have the weapons in their possession.” To illustrate his point, Mr. Duer cited an April 2, 2006 incident at the Erie County Correctional Facility, where an inmate escaped from the kitchen area while supervised by civilians. The escaped convict killed a police officer and injured two others. Mr. Duer said trained guards overseeing inmates could prevent the same thing from happening in Nassau. “We are trained in physical force, deadly physical force if necessary and the civilians are not,” he said. “In a matter of seconds, we can have 50 guys there.” The civilian employees are, however, prepared to supervise inmates one-on-one, said Jerry Laricchiuta, who was hired in 1994 and served as a kitchen supervisor. Mr. Laricchiuta heads the local chapter of Civil Service Employees Association, which represents the cooks and supervisors. The CSEA has been granted leave to intervene in the suit. “Our guys are specially trained – they go to refresher courses every year, they’re background checked more than anybody else,” he said. “We’re fine with the correction officers being in the kitchen but we did it for 50 years without them.” Around 20 “low-risk” inmates work in the jail’s two kitchens. There is one supervisor for each kitchen and around 30 civilian cooks, all of whom are required to pat down the inmates on their way in and out of the kitchen, search for contraband and check identifications. During his tenure at the facility, Mr. Laricchiuta said there has never been a fatal incident, although some civilian employees have been injured trying to break up fights. The facility houses state as well as federal prisoners and is staffed by around 1,100 correction officers. Inmates in the two kitchens prepare food for approximately 1,600 inmates and guards, said Mr. Duer, and have been supervised by at least one correction officer since his union’s reorganization in 2000. On July 3, 2007, those posts were removed and the officers reassigned to add more manpower to the housing and transportation areas of the facility, according to an affidavit by Sheriff Edward Reilly. The move violated a 1992 stipulation between the union and the county and the collective bargaining agreement, union officials charge. The stipulation in Murphy v. County of Nassau, 3242/92, forbids the sheriff from assigning employees without the title of “correction officer” to perform duties “ordinarily performed by those employees designated as correction officers” except in case of an emergency. The collective bargaining agreement also calls for “safe and healthful working conditions” and for the county to “initiate and maintain operating practices that will safeguard employees,” provisions violated by the use of civilians to oversee inmates in the kitchen, according to the union. ’15-Year Gap’ The county responded that any allegations of unsafe conditions are speculative. It argues that the 1992 stipulation does not include correction center cooks. It says that the job description of civilian employees includes a “security function” and for 15 years between 1985 and 2000, there were no correction officers overseeing inmates in the kitchens. “The 1992 stipulation was very different, as it concerned civilian employees outside of the kitchen,” Nassau County Labor Bureau Chief Barbara Van Riper, who handled the case, said in an interview. “For example, there was a recreation supervisor who oversaw moving inmates from one location to another, so this situation is very different.” A staff analysis by the Commission of Correction also termed the cook staff “sufficient” and determined that officers were not needed, according to Sheriff Reilly’s affidavit. In explaining his decision to deny an injunction, Justice Martin said that the union had not demonstrated a likelihood it would succeed on the merits of its lawsuit. The judge wrote that the 1992 stipulation that bound the county not to assign civilian employees to tasks “ordinarily” performed by correction officers was so ambiguous as to require evidence of the parties’ intent when it was executed. “Based upon the record herein, the court is not willing to find that the parties concluded that among the duties ordinarily performed by correction officers [at the facility] was the supervision of inmates in the kitchen,” wrote Justice Martin, citing the 15-year gap in correction officer oversight in the kitchens as evidence that “such work was not ordinarily performed by correction officers and therefore was not contemplated by the parties” at the time the contract was drafted. The Erie inmate escape was an “isolated incident” at a different facility to which numerous other factors contributed, and thus inapplicable to the situation at hand, said Justice Martin in dismissing the union’s claim that the county breached the work safety provisions of the collective bargaining agreement. The judge also agreed that Sheriff Reilly acted within the scope of his power in reassigning the officers to other posts and allowing civilians to supervise inmates in the kitchen. Mr. Duer said he was unsure if the union planned to appeal the injunction ruling before proceeding with the action. “We are going forward with the lawsuit,” he said. “We are going to sit down and strategize what to do from here.” Liam L. Castro of Koehler & Isaacs is representing the union. - Vesselin Mitev can be reached at [email protected].

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