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Correctional officers speak out at forum

January 11, 2004|by JULIE E. GREENE

julieg@herald-mail.com

A public forum hosted by local state lawmakers on Saturday morning was dominated by opposition to a state initiative that eventually will replace many correctional officer positions at the prisons south of Hagerstown with social workers.

Approximately 20 correctional officers attended the forum at South Hagerstown High School, and about half of them told the Washington County Delegation to the Maryland General Assembly of their concerns about the safety of officers and civilians at the prisons and of the public.

Project Restart is to replace 175 correctional officer positions at the prison complex south of Hagerstown with social workers, said Rick Thomas, who works at the Maryland Correctional Institution and is president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Local 1772. Of those 175 positions, 83 are at MCI, he said.

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After the meeting, Thomas clarified that no officers have been laid off due to Project Restart. The replacements will occur through attrition when people retire or leave for other reasons, he said.

When correctional officers leave, the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services will change their positions to add case managers, teachers and drug treatment counselors, said the department's communications director, Jacqueline Lampell. She was interviewed by phone after the meeting.

Thomas said that since Project Restart began, the number of assaults have gone up. There were two to three serious assaults in recent weeks, he said.

Correctional officer Brant Ridenour said this is the worst he's seen security and morale during his 28 years as a correctional officer.

Keith Tritle, who's been a correctional officer at MCI for 22 years, said he's heard catchphrases such as "rightsizing" the prison.

"I think maybe some consideration should be given to 'safesizing' the institution," Tritle said.

"In seven years I've watched my job go to hell, basically, to where I can actually tell a convicted felon what to do, where to do it and when to do it and he just looks at me and laughs," said Joe Conway, of the Clear Spring area.

Conway said he doubted the person who came up with Project Restart was a correctional officer or even worked in a prison. "I'm fed up. Past fed up," Conway said.

"Something has to be done and that's why we voted you all in. We're here to tell you - time you all listened," Conway said.

AFSCME and delegation members agreed to hold a meeting specifically to talk to correctional officers and other prison employees about their concerns and analysis of Project Restart.

"You know better how to run your institution, better than anyone in Baltimore does," said Del. Christopher B. Shank, chairman of the county delegation. Shank, R-Washington, said two of his relatives are correctional officers at MCI.

When Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Hagerstown, said he wanted Secretary of Public Safety and Correctional Services Mary Ann Saar to be at the meeting, union members applauded.

AFSCME officials tried unsuccessfully to meet with Saar about Project Restart, AFSCME Council 92 staff representative John Roby said.

Thomas said he thought Project Restart was the result of department officials visiting the prisons south of Hagerstown for two hours on a Sunday when the prisons' educators and counselors aren't working.

In addition, they were familiar with prisons in Baltimore and Jessup, Md., that are understaffed, Thomas said. When they saw the correctional officers at the local prisons, where staff levels are where they should be, they probably thought the prisons south of Hagerstown had too many officers, he said.

Lampell said follow-ups to the audits were done and the wardens helped.

"We will be talking to our correctional officers as this process goes forward," Lampell said. "Whatever union that we have a contract with, I'm sure that the department will meet with."

"Our highest concern is the safety of the public and the safety of our staff, including our correctional officers," Lampell said.

Department officials believe Project Restart will lead to better public safety by providing inmates with job skills, so that when they leave prison they aren't a danger to the community and don't end up back in the prison system, Lampell said.

Correctional Officer Elaine Gladhill said she's for education, treatment and rehabilitation, but inmates are given enough.

Inmates are paid to go to college classes at MCI, but they don't show up, she said.

The inmates have access to vocational training, self-help and treatment groups, gym activities, a game room, a music room, and activities from chess to football, she said.

Lampell said there are not enough educational programs for inmates. There are 1,000 inmates, statewide, on a waiting list for GED classes, she said. She did not know how many of them were from the three local prisons.

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