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Project RESTART a good idea, but officers have to be respected

January 25, 2004|by TIM ROWLAND

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that inmates incarcerated in the Greenland prison system are routinely allowed out on the street to go to work and to hunt caribou, "provided they're not drunk."

This, in a nation known for violent criminals, has caused some awkwardness, particularly when a person who has been beaten bumps into his or her attacker at the corner grocery.

Yet somewhere between Greenland and the U.S. there has to be a happy medium. Since Willie Horton, we have been on an incarceration bender that we can no longer afford, either financially or, some would argue, socially.

In Maryland, state prison populations tripled between 1980 and 2001, from 7,731 to 23,752, and associated costs have skyrocketed as well. Nationwide, prisons are a $30 billion a year industry.

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But if the states' budget crises of the past three years have been good to anyone, they have been good to inmates. Looking at their tattered budgets, legislative bean counters are discovering that their "tough-on-crime" laws have contributed mightily to breaking the bank.

Several states have quietly begun the process of undoing the laws that called for lengthy, mandatory sentences with no chance for parole. And in Maryland, Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich's administration is emphasizing rehabilitation over a throw-away-the-key mentality.

This new policy, known as Project RESTART, will have significant implications here at home, where corrections officers at the state prison complex south of Hagerstown worry that prison-staff downsizing will endanger their safety.

Elsewhere in these pages, correctional officer Elaine Gladhill reports that assaults are up since the state began cutting through attrition in August and that since December "...our security post has been cut by 48. Now we do not have the manpower to have correctional officers in every inmate housing area."

Gladhill might have made an interesting witness in Annapolis this week, when state prison administrators told lawmakers that the local complex was overstaffed and that 143 of the 1,228 officers were unnecessary.

That was the result of a study conducted by outside "experts" who conducted a post-by-post analysis.

Whether these experts had ever spent any serious time as correctional officers watching inmates, I don't know. But the job of corrections officer is thankless, dangerous, demanding and impossible to fathom if you haven't done it.

On a piece of graph paper, X number of officers per square foot may appear to make sense; but the real prison world very often denies formula.

For close to 20 years now, lawmakers across the land have been over-sentencing, over-legislating, over-building and over-spending. Suddenly it's become apparent these policies are unaffordable, and cuts have to be made.

That's an astute enough observation, but the problem is this: There's a good chance that local correctional officers will have to pay for the excesses of past legislatures because their jobs will become harder, riskier and - if it's possible within prison walls - more demoralizing.

Pay attention when Gladhill writes that stressed out guards can lead to stressed-out inmates, which is never good. The good officers who will share a word or do a small favor for an inmate help keep tension levels to a low simmer instead of a high boil. Unfortunately, these aren't the types of duties that factor into a government spreadsheet on efficiency that concludes a prison is "over-staffed."

Prison calm relies on discipline and attention to detail. Riots have been caused by something as inconsequential as a lack of pepper in the mess hall. Officers have to be hard enough not to be walked on, yet compassionate enough to lend an ear to even the most undesirable of characters.

This is not to diminish Ehrlich's Project RESTART, which on the whole is a good idea. Overcrowding is an obvious problem, both from the standpoints of affordability and safety.

Under the direction of Corrections Secretary Mary Ann Saar, RESTART stresses substance-abuse treatment, job skills, training and counseling - generally the first programs to go when prison budgets began to get tight.

Without significant training and substance-abuse treatment, half of the prisoners released from Maryland prisons are bound to be back again.

Some call the training and counseling of prisoners "coddling." But if even 5 or 10 percent of the state's inmates can be transformed into decent, taxpaying citizens through these programs, I say coddle away. The tax revenue they provide as working Marylanders and the money they save by not being imprisoned Marylanders will more than pay for the effort.

Justice should be tough, and plenty of inmates have had their chances and blown them. But justice should also be fair. Plenty more inmates grew up in drug-riddled households and have never known opportunity. Others are potentially good people who have gotten swept up in the sentencing craze, when just a little help would have put them on the right track.

RESTART quite properly seeks to address these problems. But the folks on the front lines, the correctional officers, have to be on board and they have to be happy about it. If they're not, it can undo much of the good that counseling and training provide. We've been pound foolish for too long to get penny wise today and stomp on the men and women who must each day go to work with thousands of individuals who the courts say are impossible to work with.

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