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RCI fires officer

March 24, 2003|by ANDREA ROWLAND

andrear@herald-mail.com

When Marcie Betts posed for an adult Web site, she never expected the erotic photos would cost her a career, she said.

The 22-year-old Hagerstown resident said she was "stunned speechless" when she was fired from her new job as a correctional officer at Roxbury Correctional Institution south of Hagerstown in January after prison officials learned she posed for the Web site the year before, Betts said.

The photographs were also featured in a tattoo magazine without Betts' knowledge, she said.

She found that out on Jan. 29 when RCI Warden Joseph Sacchet showed her a copy of the magazine, which had been confiscated in the prison mailroom, before he fired Betts for "off-duty conduct unbecoming a correctional officer," she said.

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Betts and her lawyer are fighting the dismissal, which they say violates Betts' right to free expression under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Adult imagery is considered free speech, according to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"Everyone has a right to express themselves however they want to," Betts said. "It's not like I was stripping off the DOC uniform or anything. It was totally unrelated to my job. I posed for the pictures before I went to work there.

"I never thought I'd get fired for it," she said.

With few exceptions, Maryland's "at-will" employment rule permits employers to fire workers without reason, according to the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation Web site.

Exceptions to this rule provide some protection to employees from illegal discrimination and from termination for filing workers' compensation claims, for attempting to enforce rights to receive overtime or the minimum wage, for asserting rights to work in a safe and healthy workplace, for refusing to commit criminal acts, for reporting for jury duty or military service or for being subject to a wage attachment for any one indebtedness, the Web site states.

'Termination justified'


Prison officials had the right to fire Betts for any reason during her probationary period, said Mark Vernarelli, director of public information for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

"It isn't taken lightly," Vernarelli said. "After extensive review, it was determined that her termination was justified."

The prison's employment contract contains a lengthy section about standards of conduct expected for employees both at work and off-duty, Vernarelli said. He did not know whether those standards applied to an employee's behavior prior to getting hired.

Vernarelli would not elaborate on what is considered a personnel issue.

Betts took a state test for the prison job in January 2002, but she didn't think she scored high enough to get hired. She hadn't heard any more about the job when she decided last spring to post erotic photos of herself on a Web site that she and her husband considered tasteful and "artistic," Betts said.

"I really don't see anything wrong with what I did," she said. "It's totally legal, and I wasn't harming anyone."

Prisoners don't have Internet access, so Betts didn't anticipate a problem even if she was hired as a guard, she said.

Months after Betts posted the pictures, she was called to begin training for the correctional officer position. She completed the nearly two-month academy and firearms training class on Jan. 15, and reported for her first shift as a tier officer that afternoon, Betts said.

Less than one week later, an inmate working in the prison's kitchen asked her if she posed for an adult Web site as he'd heard from another inmate. Betts said she was shocked and didn't respond, hoping the rumor "would just go away," she said.

Placed on leave


A few days later, Betts' supervisor and the warden questioned her about the Web site. She was put on paid leave while prison officials tried to decide how to handle the situation, Betts said.

"I wasn't worried about my job because they said I didn't do anything wrong. They were just concerned for my safety" in an environment with many sexual offenders, Betts said.

"I take that risk as a female guard, anyway. I was trained to protect myself."

Betts was called to the prison one week after she was sent home. She reported in uniform, expecting to go back to work. Instead, she was fired.

Betts immediately began fighting her termination, hiring a lawyer to help her try to get her job back and launching a Web site - fightforourrights.com - to help gather support for her cause.

"I liked my job. I learned a lot of great skills. I wanted to make it a career because I thought I'd be really good at it," Betts said. "I shouldn't have been fired."

After an appeal to the state Department of Corrections was denied earlier this month, Betts and her attorney filed a second appeal to the state Department of Budget and Finance, she said. Her lawyer will request an administrative hearing if the second appeal fails.

"We're prepared to take it to the federal court if need be," Betts said.

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