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O'Malley clinches support of correctional officers

September 03, 2006|by TAMELA BAKER

HAGERSTOWN - As expected, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley accepted the endorsement Saturday of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 92, which represents correctional officers in Maryland.

But first, there was a little business to do.

O'Malley, all but officially the Democratic nominee for governor in this year's election, sat down Saturday afternoon in the kitchen of Hagerstown attorney William L. Proctor Jr. with a group of correctional officers from around the state to hear their concerns.

Such "kitchen table" chats have become a staple of the O'Malley campaign. For the correctional officers, this particular table talk was a chance to vent their frustrations; and they had plenty.

Gangs. Contraband. Assaults. Security breaches. Staffing. Overtime. Low pay and poor pensions.

They're not new complaints; staffing levels and security concerns have been a consistent refrain in Western Maryland for three years running. And with the deaths this year of two correctional officers killed in the line of duty and an increase in assaults overall, emotions among the officers had reached a fever pitch. Inmates have been charged in both murders.

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In response, Gov. Robert Ehrlich budgeted new positions, pay raises and other incentives this year. Personnel changes were made as well - the most recent being the retirement of Division of Correction Commissioner Frank C. Sizer. On Friday, his replacement, John Rowley, announced Ehrlich had approved more than $5 million for security equipment.

But correctional officers told O'Malley Saturday that those gestures were too little, too late.

"What they're doing now is two lives too late," said Sheila Hill, an officer at Patuxent Institution in Jessup.

The stop in Hagerstown was the final leg of O'Malley's Western Maryland campaign swing this weekend with running mate Del. Anthony Brown, D-Prince George's. He's been focused on prison safety on this trip, and he clearly had done his homework, asking questions touching on key sore points -the programming behind staffing cuts, the size of the DOC administration, wages, benefits and pensions.

In a thinly veiled reference to Project RESTART, a rehabilitation program for prisoners that some correctional officers charge has taken priority over security, O'Malley said that some Republican administrations "use the mask of innovation ... to make our government as small as possible as quickly as possible." O'Malley later acknowledged he was speaking of RESTART, but said he was not in favor of dropping the program. "We need to do more with re-entry programs," he said, but not at the expense of security.

Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, accompanied O'Malley and Brown, and said that "it was not so long ago that a legislative budget analysis of the DOC found it was 590 (positions) short. Then, (Public Safety and Correctional Services Secretary) Mary Ann Saar did her own analysis and found an excess of 218." Donoghue called staffing levels "woefully inadequate."

Standing among correctional officers waiting to endorse O'Malley, Donoghue said "the staffing policy of this administration is putting the folks behind me in harm's way every day."

In accepting the AFSCME endorsement, O'Malley promised better pay, better equipment, more staffing and an open door to labor management. Just where he will find the money for all that "will get worked out in the transitional period" after the election, he said.

Afterward, Terry Hart, a lieutenant at the Maryland Correctional Training Center south of Hagerstown, said he was satisfied with what he had heard from O'Malley. "I think we have an open line of communication." And he said that would make a difference in his vote this November.

"I was a Republican for a very long time, but now I think it's time to vote for a Democrat," Hart said.

Darryl Williams, a sergeant at the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center in Baltimore, told The Herald-Mail that staffing is so tight at that institution that "we often can't even go to lunch ... we're getting burned out."

Rick Thomas, president of AFSCME Local 1772, believed O'Malley had heard what the officers were saying.

"I'm a Republican, but I feel I need to vote Democratic," he said. "I really appreciate him coming to talk to us."

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