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Prison staffing issue will face Ehrlich in '06 contest

October 25, 2005

Robert Ehrlich won 68 percent of the votes cast in Washington County in his first bid for the Maryland governor's office in 2002.

But Maryland's chief executive now faces an issue he can no longer blame on his predecessor - staffing and morale at the three state prisons south of Hagerstown.

Since 2002, the three facilities - the Maryland Correctional Training Center, the Roxbury Correctional Institution and the Maryland Correctional Institution-Hagerstown - have lost 224 staff positions.

In an interview with The Herald-Mail's Tamela Baker printed Sunday, Ehrlich defended the present ratio of officers to inmates.

Asked whether that meant that the prisons were overstaffed previously, Ehrlich said it was possible. But then he said that with the state showing a surplus of more than $1 billion, "I believe you'll see an increase with respect to this particular employee field this year."

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What that means is unclear. If the governor is confident in the leadership of Public Safety Secretary Mary Ann Saar, it seems as if he should back her staffing decisions.

If he's not confident, Ehrlich should consider replacing Saar, or at least countermand her orders on staff reductions.

In interviews with top correctional officials and officers who work directly with inmates, there is little disagreement that today's inmate population includes more violent criminals.

Some of these offenders will attack correctional employees not because they have any gripe with them, but because it increases their status within the institution.

The issue of staffing is separate from Project RESTART (Re-entry Enforcement Services Targeting Addiction Rehabilitation and Treatment).

We agree with the governor that the methods tried previously to keep inmates from reoffending haven't worked. Addressing their addiction and mental-health problems should make it possible for more ex-offenders to adjust to a law-abiding existence.

But the fact that many inmates have addiction problems and mental-health issues doesn't change the fact that they are dangerous people.

Solving their problems should be easier if the institutions trying to do it are kept as safe and orderly as possible.

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