State prison head warns employees they could be fired for privatization rumors
MADISON, Feb 02, 2013 (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
The head of the state prison system warned employees this week that they could be fired if they spread what he considers baseless rumors about privatizing prisons and other matters involving the Department of Corrections.
Corrections Secretary Ed Wall also told them in his email that when they send blind copies of emails from state email accounts, administrators in Madison can see all the people who received them.
Wall wrote that he had heard rumors that the Corrections Department was making plans to privatize state prisons and build a new correctional institution -- and that such rumors are false.
Privatizing prisons has long been a concern for correctional employees because it could lead to mass layoffs by the state. Gov. Scott Walker has taken no steps to privatize prisons, though he strongly backed the idea when he was in the Legislature in the 1990s.
"Fair warning to those involved in spreading false or malicious information about our department, it is a work rule violation, and it will be strictly enforced," Wall wrote. "You leave us no other choice when the false information causes panic and degrades morale like these things do."
He continued: "As soon as you hit 'Send' on an email, it's in our system forever, regardless of deleting it on your computer. Improper use of email causes problems and has cost people their jobs. Please don't be one of them. If you wouldn't want your note on the front page of the newspaper or in an employment hearing, then think twice about sending it because that's where it may end up."
Wall sent the email Monday, a day before he was unanimously confirmed as secretary by the state Senate. The existence of the email was first made public Friday by The Associated Press.
"You talk about bullying people and trying to intimidate people!" said Marty Beil, executive director of the Wisconsin State Employees Union. "Ever since he's been secretary, the emails he's sent out to staff have always had a tinge of intimidation."
Public employees have limited First Amendment rights while at work, said Donald Downs, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of political science, law and journalism. They have full free speech rights when speaking as private citizens about matters of public importance, but not when speaking as employees.
"The real issue is, were they speaking as citizens or employees " Downs said.
Wall and Beil tangled earlier this week, when they both testified before the Assembly Corrections Committee. Wall contended there have been no serious assaults at Wisconsin prisons since he began serving as secretary in October. Beil disputed that, saying there have been seven since late December, including one in which an inmate cut an officer in the face with a pair of safety scissors.
On Thursday, a day after their testimony, Wall sent an email to Corrections Department employees saying Beil had given "exaggerated descriptions of physical trauma suffered by our staff."
He wrote in his email that any assault on a staff member was serious, but the incidents Beil cited had not resulted in anyone being admitted to a hospital. Wall's characterization in the email contrasted with his committee testimony a day earlier, when he said "we haven't had one (serious assault) since I've been here since October."
He contended in his Thursday email that reporters had minimized his comments about how he deals with assaults. He wrote that he would respond quickly to assaults resulting in serious trauma and that "we need to treat this organization more like a family and less like a bureaucratic coffee grinder."
Beil said it was hypocritical for Wall to talk about treating employees like family just days after saying they could be disciplined for spreading rumors.
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