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Staffing problems can be a downward spiral at state prisons

August 27, 2005|By Pete Waters

The Juvenile Services Administration and the Department of Public Safety have sure been in the news a lot lately. Problems plague both agencies and the explanations offered by agency heads seem confusing to those who read the papers.

Recently, Secretary Mary Ann Saar and Commissioner Frank Sizer traveled to Hagerstown to answer a few questions during a meeting with editors and reporters.

A better place for this interview would have been in the middle of one of the inmate dining rooms at the local prisons during meal time where the editors and reporters could observe firsthand the duties of a correctional officer and actually count heads to determine if enough staff were available to supervise the number of inmates present. Bet ya wouldn't have felt safe!

Calculating what number of staff is sufficient to provide security and supervision for an inmate population at the three prisons in Hagerstown that numbers almost 7,000 is in the eyes of the beholder. Those on the front lines do not feel the current number is sufficient. Other variables that impact those numbers on a daily basis include absences from duty for military leave, sick leave, vacation, personal leave, disciplinary actions, medical leave, accident leave, absent without leave etc.

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How many actual staff work each shift to supervise the number of inmates incarcerated would be a better gauge of adequate staff. It is a very simple question. How many actual staff members work each shift and what is the number of inmates present on each shift?

Also, surely the secretary has the number of Custody PINS (positions) allotted for MCI-H on the date of her arrival and the number of Custody PINS allotted today simple math would give you the number of positions taken. It is not a real tough question. Having 10 or 12 vacancies means little when the question on the table is "how many positions have been taken or transferred?"

Commissioner Sizer alluded to the possibiltiy that "complacency" may have been the culprit for some of the recent problems.

He elected to direct this explanation toward the line staff during some of these incidents. Indeed, he might be right, but on the other hand has he examined the quality of training that is offered to line staff, seasoned staff, supervisors and managers as well? The lack of good training and supervision will always lead to problems.

What is his opinion about the amount of quality decisions that are made when staffers are forced to work six- and seven-day work weeks as part of mandatory overtime?

Is one's effectiveness diminished by working extra hours of overtime? If staffing levels are really sufficient, why is there a need for mandatory overtime? Maybe it's a good thing they don't run United Airlines with a work practice like that. "Hey Captain, I want you to fly that plane from Dulles back to San Francisco before you retire for the evening. Yep, that's mandatory; sorry that you are tired, you'll be OK in the morning."

Recruitment, retention and training are serious problems facing the Department of Public Safety. Training, from my years of experience, is insufficient for both line staff and supervisors.

This is part of the real problem. Through my years in corrections I have found that good training and good supervision eliminates or reduces many serious incidents. Would it be fair to say that if these problems are not quickly and adequately resolved, that "complacency" may be lurking in other quarters more appropriately identified outside the corridors of Hagerstown?

If leadership does not provide the tools and resources necessary to complete the mission, can they also be accused of complacency? Safe, secure and well-managed institutions will attract employees.

The perception of unsafe institutions will drive candidates in the other direction.

When I was a young correctional officer many years ago, I saw political decisions made by bureaucrats with total disregard for prison staff. I saw them put inmates in living quarters in the basement of the Maryland Correctional Institution without concern for prison conditions and the impact on staff and inmates at that facility.

Environmental and other issues were ignored. Only when the federal court intervened in a consent decree at MCI-H which lasted some 10 years (1987-1997) did prison conditions improve.

I would encourage the local political representatives and reporters to keep asking those questions they need to be asking in regard to these problems which affect your public safety constituency.

The public, the officers and their families recognize these concerns and are looking to you for your support. Don't let them down.

Former MCI-H warden
Lloyd "Pete" Waters
is a Sharpsburg resident.

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