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Ehrlich must make clear his stand on prison issues

January 13, 2006

Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich is expected to make a statement about Maryland's prisons today. Just what he will say is uncertain, although a spokesperson said it will be a budget announcement that will affect prisons "in an important way."

While his spokesperson would not confirm that the governor will announce that he's adding personnel at the prisons, in October he said his fiscal 2007 budget would likely include some new positions.

That would be most welcome. We hope the governor also can do as we suggested in October and either back the leadership of Public Safety Secretary Mary Ann Saar - or replace her.

Ehrlich was elected in 2002 with 68 percent of the votes cast in Washington County. Since then, the three facilities - the Maryland Correctional Training Center, the Roxbury Correctional Institution and the Maryland Correctional Institution-Hagerstown - have lost 224 staff positions.

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Some of those cuts came as a result of a study that concluded that some facilities here were overstaffed. Correctional officers who work directly with inmates disputed that, saying that the situation has deteriorated to the point where they feel unsafe. Others complain about excessive amounts of mandatory overtime.

The latest policy change that rank-and-file officers have complained about is a new rule requiring them to use transparent lunch boxes, to prevent them from carrying in contraband.

Given last year's revelations about the amount of illicit material getting into the prisons, this may be a necessary step. But it is being interpreted as a slap at officers' integrity instead of a policy needed for everyone's protection.

This is the heart of the problem - new policies and procedures at the prisons are not being accepted by those who work there because Saar has not convinced the officers that she's on their side.

That's not to say that the workplace should be a democracy; somebody's got to be the boss. But supervisors who can't justify their decisions - either because the decisions are poor or because they can't communicate well - are going to have problems.

The governor now has to justify the decisions his administration has made - or announce he's moving things in a new direction.

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