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Program aims to give inmates a fresh RESTART

December 15, 2003|by BRIAN SHAPPELL

shappell@herald-mail.com

State officials are hoping a new $2 million initiative called Project RESTART, which will be stressing treatment and education in area prisons, significantly will reduce crime throughout Maryland.

However, a union representing a vast majority of corrections officers at three Washington County facilities - the Roxbury Correctional Institution, the Maryland Correctional Institution and the Maryland Correctional Training Center - believes more pressing safety issues should take precedent.

RESTART is designed to add more substance-abuse treatment, job-skills training and counseling programs to the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services repertoire, according to a department news release. The program will open up 9,800 new programming slots for inmates in an effort to decrease the amount of recidivism, the release said.

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Mary Ann Saar, secretary of the department, said educating inmates is key to reducing the likelihood that they will re-enter state prisons after being released. She said studies indicate those who received education or training "behind the wire" were 25 percent less likely to return.

Saar said about 1,700 inmates in the state are on a waiting list to enter some type of educational program. She also said the average level of education for inmates in Maryland is between the fifth and sixth grade.

"A lot finally realize they don't have much of a chance for a job unless they bring that up," Saar said.

Another key objective for RESTART is bringing in more case managers to work with inmates, Saar said. She said up to 80 percent of the inmates have some substance-abuse problem, and there are not enough counselors to work with them, especially before their release. That poses a serious problem for those who need medication for various disorders, especially the mental-health variety, she said.

"Unfortunately, when our people get out and no one makes sure they're getting medication, that gets them right back here," Saar said. "(Under RESTART), anyone getting released from a prison will have a plan for re-entry" into the public sector.

Saar said RESTART will take three years to be implemented because the department does not want to put corrections officers out of work. She said most will have the opportunity to receive training to take other positions within the department.

Joe Lawrence, AFSCME Council 92 spokesman, said AFSCME believes the state needs to focus on fixing staffing problems at the prison before implementing any new programs.

"AFSCME is fully supportive of any rehabilitation efforts in corrections, but the problem is these efforts can't be effective in an environment in an atmosphere where order is not being maintained."

Lawrence said nearly every prison in Maryland is inadequately staffed. He said AFSCME, which represents 35,000 workers statewide, believes openings for corrections officers will not be filled, leading to potential safety risks to inmates and employees. Lawrence said nearly all of the new openings will be for rehabilitation staff, instead of hands-on corrections officers.

"The safety crisis needs to be addressed by raising the staffing levels (of corrections officers)," he said. "Other things that need to be done are increased training, better equipment, all of that. All this needs to be addressed - yesterday."

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