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Md. state senator calls for study of violence in prisons

February 05, 2007|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

ANNAPOLIS - A state senator is calling for a task force to study violence in Maryland's prisons.

The prisons are seeing more gang problems and more inmates accustomed to violence, Sen. Verna L. Jones, D-Baltimore City, who is sponsoring the task force bill, said Thursday.

"It's getting worse," Jones testified at a hearing held by the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, on which she serves. Sen. Alex X. Mooney, R-Frederick/Washington, also is on the committee.

A fiscal note for the bill says the state Division of Correction had 155 inmate-on-staff assaults and 457 inmate-on-inmate assaults in three months last year.

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Jones noted in written comments that two state correctional officers were killed while on duty in 2006.

One was Jeffery Alan Wroten, a Roxbury Correctional Institution officer shot in the head at Washington County Hospital. An inmate he was guarding at the hospital is facing murder charges.

Jones wants the task force to consider how illegal drugs, lead and other pollutants affect violence.

Representatives from three entities testified Thursday in favor of the task force - the Maryland Office of the Public Defender; the Public Justice Center; and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

"Our members tell us, unequivocally, that we have a safety crisis here in Maryland," said Scott Jensen, a lobbyist for AFSCME's Council 92, which represents correctional officers across the state.

In his State of the State address Wednesday, Gov. Martin O'Malley said the Division of Correction is among those that are "deeply troubled" and in "urgent need of reform." His proposed fiscal 2008 budget includes 155 new correctional officers, including 73 for Washington County's three prisons.

Jensen said outdated equipment and young, inexperienced employees are other AFSCME concerns.

The Public Justice Center, a Baltimore nonprofit organization, supports the task force, but doesn't think it needs until Dec. 31, 2008, to issue a report, as Jones proposed, said Ricardo A. Flores, the center's public policy director.

The Office of the Public Defender favors a task force and wants to be part of it, said Lori Albin, representing the office.

Jones' proposed task force would include state lawmakers, criminal justice experts and two former prisoners, one male and one female.

The Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services favors the task force, too, spokeswoman Jacqueline Lampell wrote in an e-mail.

Jones filed a bill for a task force last year, but a cross-filed version died in the House Judiciary Committee, so the Senate version didn't advance.

Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, who is on the Judiciary Committee, said he opposed last year's version because it seemed to focus on violence by officers against inmates.

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