A Look At Monroe County Correctional Facility’s COVID Response From Behind The Badge

Over the past couple of years, Monroe County has heard an outcry from business owners, residents, and even tourists about how the amalgamation of COVID-19 guidelines at the local, state, and federal levels have constrained public life. But perhaps, our public servants are being dealt the greatest disservice.

Correctional Officer Johnson is an ex-correctional officer of the Monroe County Correctional Facility who was able to give a firsthand account of the hardships faced as someone who is at the mercy of the bureaucracy surrounding COVID-19 in Monroe County. Johnson did not want his real name published. He worked at the facility before and during the height of the pandemic, choosing to resign due to a misalignment in COVID-19 policy aspirations.

Johnson shared how he felt that COVID-19 has impacted correctional officers in the Monroe County Facility. “Emotionally, physically, financially, and medically. Because now we are fighting against an invisible enemy at an already “at-risk” job.”

Contemporarily, some Monroe County Correctional Officers feel that the administration betrays them as leaders of the facility speak about the positives of their COVID-19 policies while officers face augmented stress at the hands of those same policies. Those whose views align with Johnson do not believe in their leadership’s ability to maintain order and stability amongst inconsistent and inconceivable responses to spikes in the COVID-19 rate.

Johnson continued to give his perspective on the Correctional Officer Union’s efforts concerning COVID-19.

“The Union has been fighting to get certain things put into our contract surrounding COVID. That being said, we still don’t have anything signed. That shows how much the county and the warden care about the officers. This is the second year we’ve been in COVID, and still no contract. We’re asking for emergency time. We’re asking for more things to be put in place; at least take temperatures at the front door, or require your officers to take a test every so often- anything!”

Matt Weidman, a business agent at Teamster Local 773 and former Corrections Officer at the Monroe County Correctional Facility for almost two decades who has fought along with the union in their bargaining campaign serving as their representative, gave some insight into the contract signing struggles.

“In Pennsylvania, if a bargaining unit that we represent cannot go on strike, they have the mechanism to have their case arbitrated. And so, the county’s offer for a successor contract was rejected unanimously by the total bargaining unit. I believe a large portion of why the bargaining unit rejected the offer is because there was not enough compensation or recognition to the impacts that COVID had on the facility.”

Much like Murray, in a step by step recount of the COVID related events and issues that occurred at the correctional facility, Weidman spoke of a lack of transparency in information relating to positive inmate COVID cases, inadequate PPE(Personal Protective Equipment), a failure to adopt temperature checks, and other shortcomings of the facility’s COVID response.

“We also ran into difficulties where there was a definite spread of the outbreak in the correctional facility amongst the officers, many of whom rightly reported it as workers compensation claims because they were of the belief that they got this at their employer, and their employer recognized it in emails as well, that they believed that the staff dining area was an area of transmission because the officers were removing their masks to eat. To find out that the county took the position to deny those claims, we were absolutely disgusted with that response.”

Weidman stated that our county correctional officers are “heroes of our country” because many of them are veterans, retired police officers, and volunteer firefighters.

Johnson went on to relinquish that he believes the union itself isn’t fighting hard enough on behalf of the officers it represents. He cited that much of the public has no clue of the ‘invisible enemy’ that officers are facing within the jail because it has been so covered up.

These comments directly contrast to statements given to the Pocono Record by Warden Gary Haidle back in 2020, where he stated that ‘nothing is hidden’ in response to another Corrections Officer, Vincent Cardenas, calling out his facility’s handling of the virus’s campaign throughout its walls.

Much like Cardenas, the ex-officer spoke of many scenarios which disheveled his faith in Warden Haidle, such as the county only taking responsibility for cases that it reports. While this practice seems rational in theory, it requires hard to acquire proof that a correctional officer contracted the virus from working in the facility.

Johnson regaled that he became sick with COVID twice while working at the facility, each during spikes that he adamantly states were downplayed by Warden Haidle.

When asked to describe the morale amongst correctional officers right now, Johnson stated, “Terrible. A lot of officers stopped caring about a lot of things. Including myself. Certain rules and policies- because they started putting my own job title at risk.”

The ex-officer also provided that changing COVID-19 policies among different groups of Corrections Officers serve as a great source of increased disobedience from inmates. “The issues that I have should be issues of inmates being defiant. Not inmates being defiant because one set of guards does things differently than the other.” Johnson shared that his authority was challenged by the policies of another shift countless times, putting himself in situations in which he feels that he could have been hurt.

Notably, on the same day as the capital riots of January 6th, 2021, the facility experienced its own riots, resulting in charges against eight inmates. Ultimately no officers were harmed, but it serves as a tangible reminder of the commotions that inmates can cause even in a facility designed to incapacitate them.

In addition to being faced with additional hostility in his work, Johnson recalls that as a corrections officer who had not yet tested positive for COVID-19, he was asked at least 15 times a month to come into contact with inmates who were COVID positive.

“They are not facilitating positive cases in the right way to prevent or minimize the spread. Taking positive people from one unit, bringing them to another unit to another unit. If we bring it home to our parents and get sick, the county doesn’t take accountability for it.”

Overall, Johnson does not see the facility improving in its capacity to handle the COVID-19 pandemic with the current administration at the helm.

To gauge the veracity of the claims, I reached out through email to Garry A. Haidle, who is the warden at the Monroe County Correctional Facility. While he disclosed that “I present this information as the facts instead of a Q & A response or a response to other statements made by individuals,” he shared that, in his opinion, the Correctional Facility has handled the pandemic with “minimal cases.”

Haidle insisted that “the facility has and continues to follow the guidance of the CDC, PA Department of Health, and the Correctional Facility’s Healthcare provider” and affirmed that the prison staff and administration have so far been able to work together cooperatively to mitigate the spread of COVID cases.

He also provided a chart used to keep track of the positive COVID cases at the facility. The chart showed that there were little to no positive COVID cases at the facility for long periods of time, and seemingly out of nowhere, there was an exponential spike in the numbers. However, it is important to note that these spikes never came close to seeing even half of the total people working at the facility getting sick. The chart also showed that more people seemed to be getting sick with each oncoming spike in the number of positive cases.

This is in line with a statement in Haidle’s email which reads, “Protocols remain in place that continue to limit the exposure and spread of the virus,” because it appears that something is working to limit the number of these cases in some capacity. The problem is that what is being done simply isn’t appeasing officers like Johnson and Cardenas.

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