Assaults on guards down

safety concerns remain

August 12, 1997


Staff Writer

Statistics show that the three prisons south of Hagerstown are among the safest for corrections officers, but a local union leader warned that despite the numbers, the prisons are a "ticking time bomb."

The Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services recorded 116 assaults at the three institutions in fiscal year 1996 - a rate of 87 for every 1,000 officers. That compares with a rate of 114.4 statewide.

Leonard A Sipes Jr., a spokesman for the department, said assaults can be anything from brushing up against a staff member to stabbing a prison guard.


The overall number of assaults on prison staff increased at two of the three local prisons.

- Maryland Correctional Institution - The number of assaults jumped from 18 to 20.

- Roxbury Correctional Institution - The number of assaults increased from 34 to 46.

- Maryland Correctional Training Center - The number of assaults declined from 56 to 50.

Sipes said most of local incidents are minor and that the staff at the Hagerstown complex is highly experienced.

"We have a good core of veteran correctional officers who for the most part have been at their jobs for a long time. That's a real advantage," he said.

"They know how to break up a fight and keep it from escalating. They know how to diffuse a situation verbally," according to Sipes.

Correctional officers have ridiculed the statewide drop as insignificant and have questioned whether the state is doing all it can to protect employees - particularly at maximum-security facilities in other parts of the state.

Union activists say the problem is not as pronounced at Hagerstown-area prisons, but they warned it might be a matter of time before there is a major incident.

"It's the feeling of the staff there that it's a ticking time bomb," said Mike Keifer, president of Chapter 10 of the Maryland Classified Employees Association. "Why it hasn't happened, who knows?"

Keifer, a correctional officer at MCTC, said the dedication of the staff has prevented more serious problems. He said that in his 15 years, the prison has been chronically understaffed.

Sipes disagreed with the understaffing complaint, saying the ratio of correctional officers to inmates in Maryland is the same as the national average.

Sipes did sympathize with correctional officers' concerns, but said the state has made progress. He pointed out that assaults declined 8.1 percent since 1994 while the number of inmates increased 24 percent.

"We will continue to fight for more staffing, but budget considerations will always drive that effort,'' Sipes said.

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