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Correctional officers emotions run high

January 08, 2006|By TAMELA BAKER

tammyb@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN -

For the third year running, state correctional officers flocked to the annual pre-session public meeting conducted by the Washington County Delegation to the Maryland General Assembly.

Each year, they have complained to the legislators about what they see as inadequate staffing and safety concerns.

But at Saturday's meeting, emotions were a little more raw in light of an inmate attack Thursday at North Branch Correctional Institution in Allegany County that sent three correctional officers to the hospital - one with a serious head injury.

In 2005, at least four assaults on correctional officers - one an attempted rape of a female officer - were reported at the three state prisons south of Hagerstown.

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Chris Evans, a retired correctional officer from Maryland Correctional Institution-Hagerstown, told the legislators that "the reason I retired was because of the severe staffing shortage. I feared for my life."

"This is the third consecutive year that we have expressed our concern about staffing and safety," correctional officer Henry Gladden added. "We have yet to see any positive gain."

Gladden told the delegation that while prison staffing has decreased, violence has risen - along with gang activity among the inmates.

"We can't contain this for very much longer," he said. "It's not safe anymore, fellows."

And if the correctional officers were frustrated, so were the legislators. Since last year's meeting, several have met personally with both Mary Ann Saar, the secretary of Public Safety and Correctional Services, and with Gov. Robert Ehrlich or his staff regarding the correctional officers' concerns.

"What's going on now is wrong," said Del. LeRoy Myers, R-Washington/Allegany.

"I wish I could sit here and tell you the leadership of the Division of Correction was listening," said Del. Richard Weldon, R-Washington/Frederick. "I have no confidence in the leadership of the Division of Correction. I feel embarrassed ... that I have to apologize to you."

Retired correctional officer Elaine Gladhill told the delegation she believed money in the budget the General Assembly approved last year for security staff was not being used for that purpose.

"Why are we not getting the positions we're allowed in the budget?" she asked.

Larry D. Kump, president of the Maryland Classified Employees Association's public safety noncustody employees chapter, acknowledged the delegation's efforts to resolve prison issues.

"We appreciate your efforts in being our ombudsman," Kump said, but added that the prison staff needed to know the Division of Correction "is behind them."

Evans was more direct.

"If you are helping us, thank you," Evans said. "If you are not helping us, we're gonna do our best to take you out of office."

Thursday's attack at North Branch involved 17 maximum-security inmates who were being returned to their cells from a recreation room, the Associated Press reported.

Myers vowed to find out how and why the incident occurred, and planned to contact Ehrlich's staff.

Del. Kevin Kelly, D-Allegany, represents the district in which the incident occurred. He told The Herald-Mail on Saturday afternoon that the assault might not have been the result of a staffing problem, but did add to the correctional officers' concerns. He already had contacted Ehrlich's chief of staff, James C. "Chip" DiPaula Jr., about the incident and its impact on the correctional officers.

Kelly, Myers, Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, Sen. John J. Hafer, R-Washington/Allegany/Garrett, and House Minority Leader George Edwards met with DiPaula, Saar and other officials last summer over prison issues.

"We have literally hit them over the head with this," Kelly said.

The DOC did make one major personnel change, and more positions had been promised.

In an October interview with The Herald-Mail, Ehrlich said, "I believe you'll see an increase with respect to this particular employee field this year."

In the meantime, correctional officers are not backing down from their contention that DOC staffing policies are putting them at risk.

"Pretty soon, it's gonna be an issue for the public," Gladden told The Herald-Mail. "The officers are what's holding the lid on this simmering pot."

Gladhill noted that in a Herald-Mail interview last summer, Saar had suggested offering "hazardous pay" as a way to recruit new correctional officers.

"She created the hazard," Gladhill said.

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