Prison guards rally for wage increase, better working conditions
By Pedro Correa Henry
Special to The Star
United Correctional Alliance workers took to the streets of Old San Juan on Thursday to demand that the administration of Gov. Pedro Pierluisi Urrutia fulfill its campaign promise of wage justice for the island’s correctional officers.
Employees from the Department of Correction and Rehabilitation marched from the Puerto Rico Capitol to La Fortaleza Street seeking a raise in their salaries to some $2,300 per month.
“Officers are paid now around $450 to $500 every two weeks,” said Jessica Martínez, president of the United Correctional Alliance. “We want every officer, especially those who have worked for over 10 years, to have their right to equal pay.”
Martínez said the demonstrators were also seeking to negotiate wage parity between their salaries and those of correctional officers in the mainland U.S.
The union leader said entry-level correctional officers begin working in mainland prisons with a $3,300 per month salary, adding that recruited officers are being offered a $5,000 bonus amid the COVID-19 pandemic emergency.
“This is a tempting job offer. Most of the officers enrolling are 19- to 21-year-olds, looking to raise a family, grow up,” Martínez said. “They don’t have kids, they don’t have responsibilities. You’re making them move out.”
“We could face a reduction of 200 officers as they move out to any U.S. state and get better job offers,” she added.
Meanwhile, the union chief, along with a dozen correctional officers, also demanded that the government recruit new officers as the current officer corps grows more tired emotionally and physically from working long shifts.
“In these last 12 years we have not received a wage increase, the government has not been motivated to recognize correctional officers,” she said. “We have seen how the government has rewarded other public safety officers with wage increases, and they forget about us.”
Meanwhile, Martínez said, local prison guards are also migrating to the Puerto Rico Police Academy to become cops.
“We are forgotten and marginalized,” the union leader said. “We need more than 1,000 prison officers in correctional regions; we’re understaffed. We need them to conduct rehabilitation.”
However, the Ponce prison guard insisted, the current wage won’t attract new talent to the Department of Correction.
“No [other] public servant can perform the same tasks as prison officers inside correctional facilities,” she said. “Prison officers can accomplish the duties of firefighters, state police officers, municipal police officers, but no one [except for correctional officers] can go inside a jail center and perform.”
“Our managers are not fulfilling their duties to guarantee a safe and dignifying workplace,” Martínez added. “This does not only threaten our safety, it also infringes on society’s safety; we must make sure that these citizens who are imprisoned accomplish their rehabilitation before they return to their community.”
Thursday’s march was one of a number of demonstrations that correctional officers have staged across the island to demand better labor relations and decent pay.
On June 30, the STAR reported that prison guards protested at the Guayama, Bayamón and Ponce correctional facilities to receive pay on a scale equal to that of commonwealth police officers.