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Lawmakers, Md. officials meet, discuss prison woes

July 15, 2005|by TAMELA BAKER

ANNAPOLIS

tammyb@herald-mail.com

A group of Western Maryland legislators met this week with Gov. Robert Ehrlich's chief of staff and Mary Ann Saar, secretary of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correction, to seek solutions to persistent concerns about staffing and security at Western Maryland prisons.

Tensions over staffing cuts had been brewing for some time when Joseph Sacchet resigned last month as warden at Maryland Correctional Institution-Hagerstown. His resignation letter cited what he called "dictatorial leadership, disregard for real Public Safety and employee safety and an outright display of elitism" on the part of the Division of Correction.

Allegations of an attempted assault last week on a female guard by an inmate at Roxbury Correctional Institution further alarmed correctional officers and their advocates, one of whom e-mailed a number of media and legislative representatives seeking action.

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Legislators from Washington, Allegany and Garrett counties had already planned the meeting when the incident occurred. Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, said they planned to take a list of concerns to the governor's office and were looking for some dialogue with the Division of Correction on priority positions and security issues at the prisons.

Afterward, Del. LeRoy Myers, R-Washington/Allegany, and Del. Kevin Kelly, D-Allegany, said they were pleased by Saar's willingness to listen and by the determination of James C. "Chip" DiPaula Jr., Ehrlich's new chief of staff, to deal with the situation.

The legislators met with Saar and DiPaula for more than two hours Wednesday, Myers and Shank said.

Kelly said before the meeting that there were "certainly issues pertaining to understaffing," "communication issues" and "morale problems" not only at the prisons in Washington County, but at Western Correctional Institution in Allegany County as well.

"Things are gonna get changed," Kelly told the Herald-Mail last week. "I have had conversations with people high up in the administration and these issues will be resolved."

On Thursday, Kelly declined to get into specifics that were discussed, but said there was "a very frank and open dialogue." He said it was an "extremely positive, frank and productive meeting."

"I've gotta give (Saar) a lot of credit. She listened," he said.

Myers said, "It was the first time I ever saw Mary Ann Saar talk so much. I was pleased with what she said, and I will be watching for results."

One recently retired prison employee and a current employee, who asked not to be identified, met earlier this month with members of The Herald-Mail staff to discuss conditions.

Their main concern was "understaffing, understaffing, understaffing," said Elaine Gladhill, a former prison employee who retired this summer.

Gladhill said local legislators had been working with prison staff to try to resolve the problem, which correctional officers have attributed, in part, to Saar's goal of adding more counseling positions and treatment programs, notably a program called RESTART. But with limited resources, prison employees have alleged that the Division of Correction has cut the number of correctional officers in order to provide money for the rehabilitation programs.

One correctional officer said that counting both cuts and unfilled vacancies, MCI-H had lost more than 100 positions. He said there are 20 fewer people "every night to do the same job we did three years ago."

To cover security needs, Gladhill said several correctional officers are asked - sometimes forced - to work overtime every day.

Another concern was the officers' belief that they were no longer permitted to use patrol dogs for a show of force, or that needed protective equipment for staff would no longer be provided.

Myers said he specifically asked Saar about the dogs and the equipment, and she assured him both would be available to officers.

Myers said he believed there were communication problems on both sides.

"I don't think she's getting all the information" about the employees' complaints from DOC administrators, he said, nor does he think all of Saar's directives are reaching the staff. "A lot of things that are policy are not being transmitted down to the ranks," he said.

He agreed that there's a discrepancy between the number of officers the staff believes is needed, and the DOC's staffing formula.

A new evaluation of those numbers is due today. Myers said wardens will be allowed to review those numbers and make recommendations.

"I think we made a very convincing argument that this urgently needs fixing," Shank said.

Shank, Myers and Kelly were joined by Sen. John Hafer, R-Washington/Allegany/Garrett, and House Minority Leader George Edwards, R-Garrett.

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