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Saar: MCI-H is understaffed, but not by 100 officers

August 17, 2005|by BOB MAGINNIS

When Mary Ann Saar came into office in February 2003 as Maryland's Secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, she said she got conflicting information on how many officers it took to run each of the state's prisons.

In a Monday interview with Herald-Mail editors and reporters, Saar said that given that, it was difficult to know what to budget for. And so she sought help from the National Institute of Corrections (NIC), an agency of the U.S. Department of Justice.

NIC trained teams of Maryland correction officials and spent six months coming up with what Saar called the "baseline" for every prison.

What Saar needed to know, she said, was how many people it took to operate each institution, allowing for things such as vacations, sick days, etc.

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For about half the state's prisons, the evaluators found they were understaffed, while half were overstaffed. Asked whether she felt that NIC and the teams did a good job, Saar said she believed they did.

So if MIC did such a good job, why are we getting persistent reports from correctional officers, both active and retired, that the facilities are understaffed?

Saar said she was not saying that officers were incorrect about some facilities being understaffed. But she and Frank Sizer Jr., Commissioner of the Division of Correction, said reports of more than 100 vacancies at Maryland Correctional Institution-Hagerstown (MCI-H) are wild exaggerations. MCI-H has between 12 and 16 vacancies and needs 17 new people, she said.

The problem, Saar said, is that "we cannot fill our vacancies."

About half the people recruited as correctional officers don't show up to take the test, she said.

A majority who do show up pass it, but many have problems in their background - including drug convictions - that disqualify them.

Saar also said the state cannot recruit experienced officers from other states because everyone who enters the system gets the same starting pay, which she said is now a little short of $28,000.

The pools of recruits in Maryland are not as large as they need to be, she said, because the economy is good and better-paying jobs are available outside the prison system.

She said she's working on proposals for better pay, for more advertising and building new teams inside the prisons that will try to keep communications open between officers who supervise inmates and the prison system's higher-ups.

One of the things she said she hopes to communicate is that if existing officers put out a lot of negative information, it just makes recruiting new people that much more difficult.

Saar acknowledged that her department hasn't done a good job in communicating "what we did and why we did it."

Some officers I've spoken to are convinced that Project RESTART (Re-entry, Enforcement and Services Targeting Addiction, Rehabilitation and Treatment) is to blame for the short-staffing at some institutions.

It's not that employees haven't been told such isn't the case, but Saar said that in her mind, the issue is that they don't believe what they have heard.

Saar said she has had better luck with taking groups of correctional officers to a prison in Chester, Pa., which runs as she envisions Maryland's facilities could be run.

On Tuesday, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that the State Correctional Institution at Chester, runs one of the state's most successful drug and alcohol-rehabilitation programs

After completing the program, the Post-Gazette reported, fewer than 25 percent of the ex-offenders were arrested again.

The paper noted that SCI-Chester is the only Pennsylvania prison dedicated to alcohol and drug rehabilitation, although other state prisons have their own, more limited "therapeutic communities."

Who can argue against the need for more drug treatment? Not me, but the paramount issue still must be the safety of correctional officers. As Saar said, better communication would help, but so would converting some of the unbelievers she spoke about by addressing their concerns and attracting more recruits with better pay.

Perhaps that could include signing bonuses, changing the pay structure so experienced officers wouldn't start out at the bottom of the pay scale and finding new ways to deal with the growing wave of gang-related violence Saar said is affecting the prisons.

Most inmates eventually will be released and many need treatment for addictions and mental illness. And they need some job skills. The problem Saar must solve is how to convince officers and the public that these things can be done without sacrificing employee safety.

Bob Maginnis is Opinion editor of The Herald-Mail.

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