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Md. prison official says staff shortage is exaggerated

August 16, 2005|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

HAGERSTOWN

andrews@herald-mail.com

Reports of a staffing shortage at a state prison in Washington County are greatly exaggerated, Maryland's secretary of public safety and correctional services said Monday.

Asked if Maryland Correctional Institution-Hagerstown is down 100 positions, as some correctional officers have alleged, Secretary Mary Ann Saar said it's not true.

"I think it's anywhere between 12 and 16 ... somewhere around there," Saar said during a meeting at The Herald-Mail with editors and reporters.

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Contacted later, the leader of a union representing a majority of the state's correctional officers said the truth is probably in the middle.

"About 60 is a minimum," said Ron Bailey, the executive director of Council 92 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

He said the number of administrative jobs increased as the number of correctional officers dropped because job openings weren't filled.

During Monday's meeting, Saar and Frank C. Sizer Jr., commissioner of Maryland's Division of Correction, answered questions about staffing, recruitment and safety, particularly at the three prisons in Washington County.

Local correctional officers have complained that less staffing has made the prisons more dangerous to work in. They've pointed to recent attacks on correctional officers - including an attempted rape - as evidence.

Saar and Sizer said Monday that safety and staffing were not connected in those cases. In virtually all of the recent attacks on officers, other officers were around, they said.

One exception was an attempted rape of a female correctional officer at Roxbury Correctional Institution in early July. The officer was in a school building with inmates, on a day when classes were canceled, and allowed an inmate working in the yard inside to use the bathroom, Saar said. The inmate grabbed the officer, threw her to the ground and tried to rape her, the Division of Correction has said.

"She was ordered by her supervisor to be in (the building). She was properly following orders. Not great orders, but orders," Saar said, arguing that a closed school building was a bad place for an officer to be with inmates.

Allowing the yard inmate in the building "was a mistake in judgment on her part," Sizer said.

"Complacency is probably our major enemy in this business ...," he continued. "We should be prepared (as if there were) 23,000 inmates trying to escape everyday."

Bailey disagreed with Saar's assessment about safety. He said fewer officers means greater opportunities for inmates to attack.

"There's a whole lot less eyes watching," he said. "Inmates find it easier to target the staff."

After the attempted rape and a second, unrelated assault of an officer at RCI in two weeks, Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, said Sizer "should be held personally responsible" for those and future attacks.

RCI and MCI-H are "substantially understaffed," Shank said then.

But Saar said Monday there are "maybe 30-something vacancies" total at RCI, MCI-H and Maryland Correctional Training Center, the three prisons south of Hagerstown.

Also, beyond the existing positions at those prisons, a study has shown that MCI-H needs 17 new positions, RCI needs three or four more and MCTC needs one more, Saar said.

She acknowledged that mandatory overtime is common because of the staffing shortfall.

Saar said the department has trouble recruiting people to be correctional officers and suggested that "hazardous duty" pay might help.

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