Corrections officers file suit for free speech |

Corrections officers file suit for free speech

Jill Keller, Appeal Staff Writer

The State of Nevada Employees Association filed suit Thursday against several top officials of the state Department of Corrections and the Attorney General’s Office

Rank-and-file corrections officers said they are being denied freedom of speech on the job.

Scott MacKenzie, executive director of the employees’ association, held a news conference Thursday in Carson City to announce the suit.

“At this point, we feel we have no choice but to take this step to protect members,” MacKenzie said.

The association, with more than 800 corrections department members and a total of 3,600 members statewide, has received a number of complaints regarding scheduling, safety, staffing and training in the past year, MacKenzie said.

Association attorneys contacted corrections department officials and the Attorney General’s Office to discuss problems, but were unable to resolve the issues, said the group’s legal counsel Richard McCracken.

The suit was filed against 15 individuals, including Corrections Department Director Jackie Crawford, several assistants and wardens; Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Papa; and Deputy Attorney General Patrick King.

The suit cites a memorandum issued in September by a prison officials that said no groups or organizations would be allowed to conduct employee association meetings, set up tables, pass out information, recruit, or have petition drives.

Corrections department officials reserved comment about the suit Thursday.

“The only comment we want to make right now is, the department does not deny rights to any employee,” said Acting Assistant Director of Operations for the Department of Corrections Don Helling.

Corrections Officer Kevin Ranft, 28, was one of several association members present at Thursday’s news conference. He said he feels strongly about his right to advocate “ideas for safety.”

Ranft said staffing practices and decisions by prison officials have created unsafe conditions, putting officers in jeopardy. The situation causes stress for the officers and their families, he said. Staffing conditions have created situations at times when one officer may be in charge of watching 160 inmates, Ranft said.

When concerns are brought up to prison wardens or supervisors, they are dismissed and officers are retaliated against, Ranft claimed.

Supervisors “bring you into the office one by one,” he said, to offer promotions for not joining the association.

Many times, officers are denied promotions or disciplined for speaking out or joining the association, MacKenzie said. One Ely officer was put on four months of administrative leave after signing up 70 new members in four days in September, he said.

“You have a constitutional right to form a union and engage in free speech to do that,” McCracken said. “That doesn’t mean the state has to recognize a union, but you can’t stop people from forming one.”

If issues are not resolved soon, the officers said they will begin picketing the Carson City office of the Department of Corrections in January.