NPH attorneys Gary Nolan and Meghan Cooper won a significant arbitration victory for a 30-year employee of the Middlesex Sheriff’s Office, NEPBA Local 500, in a case that brought sharp focus onto the issue of prison overcrowding, while highlighting the difficulty faced by a consistently shrinking compliment of officers. The Award of the arbitrator, rendered on Christmas Eve, overturned entirely the Sheriff’s heavy-handed discipline of a veteran, well-respected officer with an impeccable record of service.
In 2012, the Cambridge Jail, designed to hold 160 pretrial detainees, had swelled to a population of more than 400; meanwhile, officer staffing had drastically decreased. With half the population residing in hallways and bunk beds, and many others living in cells with broken doors, the Officers simply had to do their best to manage an extremely difficult situation. This case involved a inmate attacking another inmate with a large urn of hot water, and causing sever injuries. Turning a blind eye to overcrowding, understaffing and long-recognized past practices observed at all levels of rank within the jail, the Sheriff chose to place all blame for the inmate’s attack on a widely respected Lieutenant. As a result, the officer was demoted two ranks, and a 120-day suspension was levied, together with other discipline. This appeal followed.
After three days of hearing, the Arbitrator ruled that the Sheriff lacked just cause to impose any discipline whatsoever, ruling, “the testimony of all the witnesses in this case, the MSO’s as well as the Union’s, persuasively demonstrated that the overcrowding and understaffing at the jail influenced decision making at every level, and not for the better. On the 18th tier, half the detainees slept in bunks, unprotected and unsecured, without even the minimal privacy of a cell….two officers were responsible for over 100 inmates, several of whom had serious medical or psychological problems…three were diabetics, and eleven were on suicide watch.” He continued, “the deplorable condition of the physical plant of the jail exacerbated the overcrowding and understaffing…there is no doubt that managers and superior officers were frequently on the 18th tier. Common sense tells us that they knew, or should have known, what was openly going on around them.”
In the end, the arbitrator found no just cause to discipline the employee, ruling, “in plain terms, he did nothing wrong.” The employee is to be restored retroactively to his previous rank, and made whole for all lost wages – with interest – as well as seniority and retirement contributions.