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Lawmakers call for review of prison procedures

January 27, 2006|by TAMELA BAKER

tammyb@herald-mail.com

ANNAPOLIS - When Secretary Mary Ann Saar of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services appeared for a budget hearing Thursday afternoon before Sen. Donald F. Munson's subcommittee, he made it clear that he thought she should be elsewhere.

"These dollars aren't nearly as important as what's happening in Hagerstown today," he said.

Though Saar was in the state capital for the hearing, she told The Herald-Mail that Division of Correction Commissioner Frank Sizer was in Hagerstown with the family of a correctional officer shot early Thursday at Washington County Hospital. Saar was getting regular updates on the situation, she said, and was praying for the officer.

Reaction to the shooting was swift among local legislators who've been pressing the administration over safety concerns at the prison complex south of Hagerstown.

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All were quick to point out that the incident did not appear to be related to staffing concerns at the prison, but that they will be interested to see whether the investigation shows the procedures for transporting prisoners needs to be changed.

This shows you just exactly what (correctional officers) have the potential to go through," said Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington. "I know there's an investigation going on and I'm certainly interested to see what comes out of it."

Munson called Gov. Robert Ehrlich's chief of staff, James "Chip" DiPaula, Thursday morning to ask for "a thorough review, including changing the procedure," he said. He also asked that Saar and Ehrlich go to Hagerstown in support of the officer.

In a statement released by Ehrlich's office Thursday afternoon, the governor said, "I've been made aware of the tragic shooting that occurred at Washington County Hospital. I am closely monitoring the situation and I ask all Marylanders to pray for the health and safety of our officer."

Saar promised Munson she would review the procedure for transporting inmates - a procedure that predates Saar's administration - to see whether having two officers stay at the hospital would have prevented the incident, whether the officers should be carrying guns and whether officers have enough training before transporting inmates.

Mary L. Livers, deputy secretary for operations, told The Herald-Mail that reported concerns about whether the officers should be carrying guns had not reached the administration.

"I have not heard of any complaints like that; the secretary has not heard any complaints like that," she said.

Livers said the officers who transported the inmate had followed practices in place not only in Maryland, but across the country.

She did say, however, that some hospitals are uncomfortable with the presence of guns while others prefer that officers be armed.

More precautions are taken if they know there is a high-risk situation, she said.

The shooting is "a potent reminder of the risks (correctional officers) take every day in putting their lives on the line to protect the public," said Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington.

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