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Injured on the Job, Corrections Officer Links Safety with Collective Bargaining Rights

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Editor’s note: This is National Correctional Officers and Employees Week, when we honor the service and sacrifice of corrections professionals throughout our country. Too many of these men and women in uniform go to work every day not knowing if they will make it back home safely. But by joining together in AFSCME, corrections professionals are making their workplaces and communities safer. This is one of two stories we are posting today featuring corrections professionals who, along with their co-workers, are negotiating with their employers for improvements to working conditions and better public services.  

LAS VEGAS – The day after he was released from a hospital, a bruised and swollen Kelvin Chung told a state Senate committee that state employees like him need collective bargaining rights to advocate for safety on the job.

“I want you to see my face. We need a voice on the job, so this doesn't happen again to anyone else,” said Chung, a corrections officer. 

Just days earlier, Chung, a member of AFSCME Local 4041, was attacked by two inmates while on the job at Ely State Prison.

In Memoriam

In 2018, two AFSCME Minnesota members died in the line of duty in separate incidents while serving their communities: Council 5 corrections officers Joseph Gomm, 45, was murdered by an inmate at the corrections facility in Stillwater on July 18, where he’d worked for 16 years. Joseph Parise, 37, died from heart failure at the Oak Park Heights prison after responding to a fellow officer who was being attacked by an inmate.

Shortly after 10 p.m., he and another officer were setting up canteen deliveries outside an officer control room for the inmates to pick up. Chung, who was initially assigned to another duty but was moved from his usual guard post assignment because the facility was short staffed, told the supervising officer that it was against protocol to release inmates from their cells after 9 p.m., and that canteen packages were to be distributed individually though food slots, not out in the open.  

He also shared his concern that letting several inmates out all at once could cause safety issues. The supervising officer replied: “This is how the facility always passed out canteens.”  

Then Chung’s fears came true. One of the inmates, who had had a prior run-in with Chung, teamed up with another inmate and attacked Chung from behind.  

Backup arrived within 30 seconds. Chung was escorted out of the unit into a medical treatment room but had sustained severe head injuries. After the nurse made an initial assessment, Chung was wheeled out into the hallway, where he waited 20 minutes for an ambulance to arrive.  

About 45 minutes after the attack, Chung was taken to a hospital.  

Chung said the facility’s procedures and severe understaffing had put his life at risk.  

“The rules state inmates are not to be out of their cells past 9 p.m. Then why are we handing out canteens at 10 p.m., and not by the proper protocol of individually though food slots?” Chung said.  

He testified in early April before the state Senate Government Affairs Committee, which was holding a hearing on SB135, a bill to allow collective bargaining rights for 20,000 state employees. He spoke up about why state employees need collective bargaining rights.

SB135 will allow Nevada state employees to have a seat at the table with the governor and the Nevada Legislature and gain a voice in making decisions over working conditions and compensation. AFSCME members have been leading this change for state employees for years and will continue to do so until collective bargaining is a reality.

Without those rights, Chung said, suggestions made by front-line COs like him aren’t taken seriously.  

“I brought up my concerns about the canteen distribution but was told, ‘This is how we always do it,’” Chung said. “I know this is not correct. This is a maximum-security facility and officers are not supposed to be alone with inmates in an open environment after 9 p.m. because there are not enough staff.”  

Chung, a former business owner and police officer in Hong Kong, said he loves the people he works with and enjoys his job, but added that senior officials at the facility where he works often sidestep safety standards to address understaffing.  

“This job is only safe when we all follow the rules and regulations that are in place to keep us safe,” Chung said. “But when the directors change the rules because we don’t have enough staff to properly follow them, that puts our lives and the inmates lives at risk.”  

“I was moved when my co-workers came to visit me in the hospital. That’s what motivated me to speak out and let our legislators know we need collective bargaining,” Chung said. “Together, we need a voice on the job and a process for workplace safety issues to be taken seriously.”

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