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They say they want a resolution

correctional officers continue fight

correctional officers continue fight

February 26, 2006|By Tamela Baker

tammyb@herald-mail.com

ANNAPOLIS -

Dressed in their crisp dark uniforms and filling every available seat in the House Appropriations Committee room in the new wing of the House office building, the crowd of correctional officers from all over Maryland cut an impressive display last week in the state capital.

They hung on every word of the exchange between Mary Ann Saar, secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, and members of the legislative subcommittee reviewing their budget for the next fiscal year.

Word that a budget analysis had recommended they be denied a retroactive pay raise proposed last month by Gov. Robert Ehrlich had been the latest blow in what for them has been an ongoing series of frustrations. It began when a new staffing audit in 2003 led to staff reductions many officers claim have compromised security in the state's prisons. Ever since, they've been mounting a campaign with Western Maryland lawmakers to address issues of security, mandatory overtime and their perception that their department's administration wasn't hearing them.

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A series of assaults over the past year and the death last month of a correctional officer shot while guarding an inmate at Washington County Hospital added to the overall frustration of a group of officers who hadn't received a significant salary increase beyond routine cost-of-living adjustments since the early 1990s.

While Ehrlich, Saar and several legislators have been discussing all of those issues for more than a year, the correctional officers have been weighing their own options. While some have opted to leave their positions, the group assembled in Annapolis last week took their quest for change to the highest levels of state government.

And although various officers have been critical of Saar's administration, she and the officers were united last week in their contention that the pay increases and the 75 additional positions requested in Ehrlich's fiscal 2007 budget were not only deserved, but essential.

"We have been beating on the department to help you all out," House Minority Leader George Edwards, a candidate for state Senate for western Washington County, told the officers. The proposal for pay increases and new positions, he said, "is an important first step."

Staff defection

After the 2003 audit, the three prisons at the complex south of Hagerstown lost more than 200 positions, according to figures The Herald-Mail obtained last fall from the Division of Correction. Commissioner Frank Sizer told the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Public Safety and Administration on Thursday that the Hagerstown institutions had the correct number of positions needed to staff them according to the 2003 relief factor ? but that the 2005 relief factor, which determines how many officers are needed to adequately cover the prisons for all shifts, showed more positions are needed.

Statewide, he said the department now has 770 vacancies in positions that are "essential to support day-to-day institutional operations and are involved in the direct supervision of inmates."

"The department is experiencing an unprecedented number of correctional officer resignations in combination with a dramatic reduction in the hiring pool of potential candidates," he said in the DOC's written response to the budget analysis, submitted to the subcommittee last week.

Saar said during a visit to Hagerstown on Friday that 640 of the 770 vacancies are correctional officers.

Sizer himself has been the target of severe criticism from officers and legislators, but during the same visit to Hagerstown, both Saar and Ehrlich said they retained confidence in Sizer.

Since budget hearings began in the Senate in early January, Saar has attempted to persuade legislators the pay raises Ehrlich requested are imperative if the DOC hopes to recruit officers to fill the vacancies. But during a Senate Budget and Taxation subcommittee hearing conducted the same day Officer Jeffery Alan Wroten was shot in Hagerstown, Subcommittee Chairman James DeGrange, D-Anne Arundel, bluntly told Saar that by cutting positions, she had created the conditions that made recruiting new officers difficult.

Last week, Del. Charles Barkley, D-Montgomery and a former Hagerstown resident, was only slightly more gracious.

After Saar reminded the Appropriations subcommittee that the officers hadn't had significant raises in years, Barkley reminded her that "three of those years were under this administration." Further, he said, "this subcommittee thinks the prisons are understaffed," and that the cuts made in 2003 "are wrong. Maybe if we were at appropriate levels, we wouldn't have so much overtime."

But Saar stood her ground.

"I'm delighted to hear that," she said, and urged Barkley and the rest of the committee to fight for the raises and new positions.

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