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Guards sweat out new uniforms

July 07, 1997

By BRENDAN KIRBY

Staff Writer

Mike Keifer often feels like he is wrapped in plastic all day.

The Hagerstown resident spends most of his work day outside the prerelease center of the Maryland Correctional Training Center south of Hagerstown.

When it gets hot, he said, his dark, 100 percent polyester uniform suffocates him.

"I work outside all day long. The summer months are the worst," said Keifer, president of MCEA Chapter 10. "It's virtually like wearing Saran Wrap. When you go home at night, you virtually have to peel the thing off your body."

For Keifer and thousands of state correctional workers, relief is on the way.

David Towers, a spokesman for the Division of Correction, said the state is in the process of switching to a Dacron-rayon blend.

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"It's definitely an effort to be more comfortable, more breathable," he said. "In time, that will be the uniform."

How long before the change is uncertain, Towers said. He said the new uniforms will be phased in gradually as the old ones wear out.

"That will take some time," he said.

To correctional officers, it could not come too soon. Representatives of the Maryland Classified Employees Association have been circulating a petition among correctional employees to force the change.

Union officials said it's wrong to have correctional officers worry about heat instead of their jobs.

"Every summer, officers are reminded of the discomfort and the dangers," said Janet Anderson, an MCEA official.

And it's not just the heat, correctional employees said.

"In the wintertime, they hold in the cold," said Ray Lushbaugh, who works at the Maryland Correctional Institution south of Hagerstown.

"It's definitely a hindrance to the job," added Lushbaugh, a representative of Teamsters Local 103. "It causes chafing in the summertime and they wear out pretty easily."

Correctional employees point to other problems as well. Lushbaugh and Keifer both said the polyester uniforms are highly flammable - a bad quality during any kind of disturbance in which prison guards might come in contact with fire.

"You almost don't have a chance to get it off before it burns into your skin," Lushbaugh said.

Carl Anders, a retired correctional officer from Hagerstown, said the gray pants and white shirt the state issued about 12 years ago were much more comfortable. "They were nice and cool. Why they ever changed is beyond me," he said.

Correctional officers acknowledge that new uniforms may sound like a trivial issue. But after giving up pay raises, many said, outfitting guards with comfortable uniforms should be something officials can do fairly easily.

"We're asked to sacrifice all the time," Keifer said. "I think a lot of times, people making those decisions are sitting behind a desk in an air-conditioned office."

State officials said they understand the problem.

"It's a huge cost factor," Towers said. "The state just can't do it all at once."

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