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Budget cuts are possible for Project RESTART

March 21, 2004|by LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

ANNAPOLIS - Maryland General Assembly budget-cutters are looking to gut Project RESTART, an inmate reform policy that would have replaced correctional officers with counselors at the prisons south of Hagerstown.

But even if the policy is scrapped for now, local correctional officers say they'll have to fight to keep the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services from continuing to cut prison staff.

As far as correctional officers are concerned, the problem is not Gov. Robert Ehrlich's RESTART program.

It's an October study that claimed the prison complex south of Hagerstown, with 1,228 correctional officers, could safely operate with 143 fewer officers.

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At the same time, the study found that prisons in the Jessup, Md., area are understaffed.

Hagerstown area correctional officers maintain the study was flawed, said John Roby, staff representative for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 92.

It did not properly account for inmates moving throughout the prison, he said.

Since the report, correctional officer posts have gone unmanned and inmates have been allowed to roam the yard at the Maryland Correctional Institution with no direct supervision, Roby said.

"They are really taking a lot of risks," he said.

Public safety spokesman Mark Vernarelli said he is not aware of any increase in violence due to the staffing changes.

"Correctional officers are always going to be the number one cog in our wheel," he said.

Roby said correctional officers are in favor of the idea of rehabilitating prisoners when possible, but not to the detriment of safety.

The Maryland Senate passed a budget last week that pared down what was a wide-reaching RESTART program, limiting it to a demonstration project in Baltimore.

Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, who serves on the Budget and Taxation Committee, said he and other lawmakers wanted to make sure the program works before investing a proposed $9.2 million

The House could restore the money, but lawmakers on the Appropriations Committee were skeptical of the plan at a briefing in January.

Public safety officials still are committed to the RESTART philosophy, Vernarelli said.

Increased education and substance abuse treatment will reduce idleness, which improves the safety of inmates and correctional officers, he said.

"It's for the betterment of all of us if more of them are prepared to live on the outside," Vernarelli said.

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