The president of Alaska’s correctional officers union is suing two senior leaders at the state Department of Corrections, saying he has been unfairly targeted for retribution since 2008, including being demoted and pepper-sprayed.
In a statement issued late Tuesday, the Alaska Correctional Officers Association announced the suit by Officer Randall McLellan against DOC Commissioner Joe Schmidt and Bryan Brandenburg, the department’s director of institutions. McLellan, ACOA’s president since 2010, is seeking at least $100,000 in compensatory damages, as well as attorney’s fees and nominal damages due to what the suit calls “the unconstitutionality of defendants' conduct.”
“The lawsuit alleges violations of Officer McLellan's civil rights under section 1983 of the federal Civil Rights Act,” ACOA officials wrote in the statement. “The complaint alleges that for more than five years, the defendants have orchestrated a systematic course of harassment and persecution of Officer McLellan for his advocacy on behalf of the ACOA, its members, and the inmate population in Alaska.”
A high-profile dispute between the department and ACOA over Anchorage Jail staffing levels made news in August. Initial disagreements over staffing minimums at the jail escalated to the union taking out a full-page newspaper ad telling Gov. Sean Parnell the department was being “mismanaged” and would eventually see officers injured or killed.
In September, two Anchorage Jail guards were injured fighting an inmate who had flooded his cell using a toilet. During another Nov. 27 incident at the jail, correctional officer Michael Williams was punched in the face by a disruptive inmate; ACOA officials said his nose was broken and he lost a front tooth.
McLellan’s complaint acknowledges bad blood between him and the defendants dating back to the administration of then-Gov. Sarah Palin, including staff reductions at DOC which prompted a March 2008 vote of no confidence in Schmidt by union members. McLellan spoke in favor of the vote, which passed by a margin of 514 to 19.
Following the vote, McLellan claims the department started maintaining a secret file of infractions he had allegedly committed, in violation of its collective bargaining agreements.
“The file included reports of such trivial matters as a failure to say good morning, a failure to verbally respond to a comment, and a failure to wear his name tag,” attorneys wrote. “The file was created in an apparent effort to find grounds for subjecting McLellan to discipline.”
That April, McLellan -- then a sergeant at the Mat-Su Pretrial Facility -- spoke with the Anchorage Daily News at Brandenburg’s request regarding DOC’s attempts to prevent drug-resistant infections by staphylococcus bacteria. He mentioned a lack of clean linens and clothing for inmates at the facility, which McLellan said had been “clearly documented” by facility staff.
Speaking the next day on conservative radio host Eddie Burke’s talk show, Schmidt blasted McLellan for bringing up the issue with media rather than his supervisors.
“Schmidt faulted McLellan as the one responsible for the problem and he characterized him as a union member who was spreading hate and fear through false statements about a clothing shortage that did not exist,” attorneys wrote.
One day later, McLellan says Brandenburg ordered his shift to extensively clean the facility, as well as provide a full report.
“Though it was claimed that this cleaning would be a new routine that would be rotated through the shifts, the task fell almost exclusively on McLellan's shift,” attorneys wrote. “The cleaning was ordered as punishment and retaliation for McLellan's exercise of his First Amendment rights of free speech and association.”
Over time since the 2008 incidents, McLellan says both he and his shift were targeted for discriminatory conduct, with his supporters transferred to other shifts by management.
“It is a repeated joke among staff at the Mat-Su Pretrial Facility that you should not stand too close to McLellan because he has a target on his back and they might miss and hit you,” attorneys wrote.
The pepper-spraying allegations grew out of a March 2, 2013 case, in which a violent assault suspect arrested after allegedly trying to hit an Alaska State Trooper was brought to McLellan’s facility. McLellan had warned the inmate that he would be pepper-sprayed if he didn’t remain compliant, and sprayed him when he began to kick a cell door; the spray also sickened several officers in the area.
Shortly after the arrest, in April a labor arbitrator ruled that DOC had violated its bargaining agreement with ACOA in unilaterally changing from a week-on/week-off schedule to a five-days-on/two-days-off schedule. McLellan had represented the union during the case.
On June 12, McLellan says he was unfairly demoted from sergeant to correctional officer II over the pepper-spraying incident, despite support from the trooper for his actions and the assault suspect later apologizing for his conduct. He wasn’t notified of any investigation into the March 2 case until after the April labor ruling.
“The actions taken against McLellan in response to the March 2 incident were motivated by defendants' dissatisfaction with the adverse arbitration ruling and undertaken in retaliation against McLellan for his exercise of his First Amendment rights of free speech and association,” attorneys wrote.
In addition to the demotion, McLellan says he and other officers of his shift were subjected to what was billed as refresher training, in which they were pepper-sprayed in the face. Brandenburg was present -- a deviation from management's usual policy of not attending training sessions -- and was allegedly laughing and joking throughout.
“McLellan had already been sprayed as part of his prior training and it is unprecedented to subject an officer to a second spraying as part of any refresher training,” attorneys wrote. “Once an officer has been sprayed as part of training, the officer should not be sprayed again as part of retraining.”
Attorneys for McLellan also questioned the lack of written tests for his shift at the time, as provided to other participants in the training.
“The ‘retraining’ provided to McLellan and his shift members was a sham,” attorneys wrote. “Though training includes a classroom session and a written test, they were initially slated to participate only in the part of the training where the participants are sprayed.”
DOC spokesperson Richard Schmitz says Wednesday that neither Schmidt nor Brandenburg has received any documentation from the suit. He declined any comment on behalf of the department, noting that Schmidt has yet to consult with his attorneys.