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Prison pay hike welcome, but staffing issues remain

January 17, 2006

Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich on Friday took a big step toward mending his administration's rift with the state's correctional officers by proposing a wide-ranging package of pay increases.

That is welcome news. Across-the-board pay raises of more than 6 percent for all officers and a boost of more than $5,000 in starting pay should make difficult jobs a little bit easier.

But as noted by Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, the chairman of Washington County's General Assembly delegation, pay is only one piece of the puzzle.

The other is staffing. Since 2002, the three state correctional facilities south of Hagerstown - the Maryland Correctional Training Center, the Roxbury Correctional Institution and the Maryland Correctional Institution-Hagerstown - have lost 224 staff positions.

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In an October interview with The Herald-Mail's Tamela Baker, Ehrlich defended the then-current ratio of officers to inmates.

Asked if 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."

It's evident now that one increase the governor has in mind is monetary. Whether he also envisions an increase in staffing is another question.

As we have said previously, the Ehrlich administration's problem with its corrections policies is that there has been little buy-in by those who work directly with inmates.

It's unclear whether this lack of buy-in is because the policies make no sense or because higher-ups have done a poor job of communicating with the rank-and-file. What is clear is that whatever the administration is selling, correctional officers aren't buying.

That needs to be corrected, because if officers keep telling others in the community how bad it is in the prisons, new hires will be mighty hard to come by.

Gov. Ehrlich has bought himself some goodwill with this new pay package. He needs to take advantage of it by taking a close look at whether the policies of the people he put in place are the problem, or their lack of communication skills.

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