Originally created 07/17/02

Justice agency accused of rights violations



The Atlanta chapter of the Service Employees International Union, which covers state employees, is accusing the Department of Juvenile Justice of using polygraph tests to muzzle Augusta workers and possibly violating their First Amendment rights.

Guards and nurses at the Augusta Youth Development Campus who have spoken out in recent months haven't had nice things to say about the facility for incarcerated teens.

Speaking both publicly and anonymously, they have told of unfair working conditions for black workers, policy violations, sex between boys in custody and allegations of rape and abuse.

Now reports have seeped out that the administration is using lie detector tests to find out who's been talking to the media and how The Augusta Chronicle obtained incident reports and medical documents backing up employees' accounts.

"The spotlight was on the department, but once the cameras are off, they go back to what they were doing, which is to harass and intimidate," said Ralph Williams, the president of Local 1985 of the union.

Mr. Williams said polygraphs are used to discredit and demean employees. The tests, administered by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, can be a scarlet letter on a worker once they're over, he said.

Union representatives will be in the parking lot of the facility off Mike Padgett Highway today interviewing workers as their shifts end, Mr. Williams said. Preparing for litigation, the union wants to know how many people have been given lie detector tests and whether anyone has been harassed for speaking out about working conditions.

An attorney for the union sent a letter last week to Mike Sorrells, the deputy commissioner of human resources. The letter accused the department of retaliating against employees for speaking out on workplace conditions by requiring them to take polygraph tests, changing their work shifts or threatening the loss of their jobs if the Augusta YDC becomes privatized because employees can't get along.

Mr. Sorrells declined to speak about the letter Tuesday through Juvenile Justice spokeswoman Jaci Vickers. Ms. Vickers said the department received the letter and is looking into the issues it raises.

The department has a right to administer lie-detector tests to staff members as part of investigations into violations of policy, procedure or law, she said. Leaking reports involving juveniles is illegal, she said, but stopped short of saying that is the reason workers are taking the polygraph tests.

Ms. Vickers said several investigations are under way, one involving the unauthorized release of medical information. Two people have been given the tests so far, she said.

"Certainly we would never harass and intimidate anyone for exercising their constitutional rights, but certainly where there are circumstances that are a breach of policy and procedure. As an agency, we have an obligation to investigate it, and that may involve polygraphing staff," Ms. Vickers said.

The union letter also addresses the plight of juvenile correctional officer Patricia Walker, the first employee to speak publicly about conditions at the facility. Ms. Walker, who has a discrimination complaint pending with the Georgia Commission on Equal Opportunity and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, gave interviews to local media earlier this year.

Ms. Walker said she was moved last month from first shift - 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. - to second shift - 2 to 10 p.m. - despite a doctor's order that she work only during daylight hours. Ms. Walker has a diagnosed sleep disorder, and working late hours interferes with her medication, said her family doctor, Keith Harden.

Ms. Vickers said she could not discuss issues involving a specific employee. In letters to Ms. Walker, the department has said it has not received the proper paperwork from Dr. Harden, but Dr. Harden said he has responded to all the department's requests for information.

The union letter alleges that Ms. Walker's name was not originally put on a shift change list by her supervisor but was added later by management. Ms. Walker said administrators are trying to force her out and that she hasn't given them any reason to fire her.

"I think they want the heat turned down, most definitely," she said. "I think they want me to disappear."

Unless satisfied that the Department of Juvenile Justice isn't denying workers' rights, Local 1985 of the Service Employees International Union will proceed with a lawsuit.

Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or johnny.edwards@augustachronicle.com.