Disabled prison officer disputes suspension

July 13, 1994|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,Sun Staff Writer

Despite having a disability that keeps him from firing a gun safely, Kim Johnson worked for 14 years at the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup. Now the Division of Correction wants him to stay at home, with pay, for that reason.

Mr. Johnson and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents 1,700 of the state's 5,000 correctional officers, charge that the division is violating the federal Americans with Disabilities Act by phasing out employees like Mr. Johnson.

Leonard A. Sipes Jr., spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said a policy of identifying officers who can't perform one or more of 43 "essential" duties required of correctional officers was, in fact, developed to comply with the 1992 act. Officers who cannot perform some functions have been receiving letters from their wardens asking them to resign, retire, help find an alternative post within the division or the state, or be fired.

An inherited neurological disorder causes Mr. Johnson to walk with a limp and his hands to shake. The condition has kept him from qualifying for a firearms card required of all state correctional officers.

Still, no one questioned his employment, Mr. Johnson said. He even earned an Officer of the Year award in 1989.

In May, however, Mr. Johnson, 33, learned he was being suspended with pay, and that the department is beginning termination proceedings, because he could not perform "all the duties of a correctional officer." He waits at home, collecting his $660 paycheck every other week, hoping to go back to work.

Mr. Sipes would not comment on Mr. Johnson's individual case, or any others. He would not specify how many employees had been suspended with pay because of disputes over whether they are fit to serve but said only "a small number" are in that position.

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires employers to provide "reasonable accommodations" to employees with permanent disabilities. But Mr. Sipes said that correctional officers must be able to rotate from assignment to assignment within institutions, meaning that the inability to perform even one of the essential tasks could make a person unemployable as a correctional officer.

Mr. Sipes said assigning disabled employees to posts which did not require them to perform certain tasks would not often be feasible, though he said the department tries to work with officers on a case-by-case basis.

Customarily, only correctional officers assigned to perimeter posts, tower posts, home-detention monitoring or transporting inmates carry firearms on duty, Mr. Sipes said. But correctional officers from many posts had to use firearms to regain control during an inmate insurrection at the Maryland Correctional Institution in Hagerstown in 1991, he said.

Another officer from the Jessup prison, Folorunso Eddo, recently told The Sun that the division fired him rather than find him a post away from inmates after Mr. Eddo was stabbed by six prisoners armed with homemade knives.

Division officials have said they offered Mr. Eddo alternative jobs but that he refused them.

Mr. Sipes said yesterday that Mr. Eddo is no longer on the division payroll but would not comment further.

Ricardo R. Silva, the correctional special-projects coordinator of Council 92 of AFSCME, said the division refuses to formulate a consistent policy for dealing with officers with physical limitations.

Mr. Silva said there had been eight to 10 recent cases like Mr. Johnson's. Unlike Mr. Johnson, the other workers who have received letters have not been suspended, he said.

"I love my job," Mr. Johnson said. "I'm part of the rehabilitation process for the inmates. I'm there to lead them in the way to make them better or to help them understand where they went wrong."

Mr. Johnson has Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, which prevents him from firing a gun straight. Nor can he wrestle with inmates, run long distances to break up fights or climb to a tower post, according to a state medical evaluation of him completed last year. Another doctor Mr. Johnson asked to evaluate him disputed some of those findings.

Mr. Johnson's attorney, Alan Harris, said there are posts Mr. Johnson is qualified to hold,including a control post to which he was transferred last year.

Mr. Johnson proudly displays his 1989 award.

"I had the same condition then that I have now," he said. Representatives of AFSCME and the Maryland Correctional Union, which represents 1,500 correctional officers, point to growing frustration among officers over firings and suspensions at a time when institutions are understaffed, causing security risks, according to the unions.

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