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'I pretty much control my safety'

July 29, 2007|By KAREN HANNA

As a member of a new unit that ferries inmates to court dates, for medical care and to new prison placements, Cpl. Joe Charette shoulders responsibilities similar to the duties a fellow correctional officer had on his last watch.

Charette said he believes his safety is in his own hands.

"I pretty much control my safety. Something bad's going to happen to me if I don't do my job," said Charette, who expressed optimism that the state will respond to recent incidents in the prison system.

Roxbury Correctional Institution officer Jeffery Alan Wroten was pronounced dead a day after being shot with his own gun while guarding an inmate on Jan. 26, 2006, at Washington County Hospital.

The slaying was one of two involving correctional officers in the state last year, and one of 73 serious assaults involving inmates or correctional officers at the state prison complex south of Hagerstown, according to data provided by the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

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"It's a wake-up call, but like I said earlier, it's terrible that something bad has to happen for things to change," Charette said of Wroten's death.

Like Wroten, Charette, 36, of Hedgesville, W.Va., carries a gun. He is a member of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services' Western Regional Transportation Unit, which was formed in January.

"It's just one of the ... jobs that takes a little bit more attention, securitywise," Charette said.

In some cases, five officers watch over as many as 40 inmates in secured cages aboard buses traveling between prisons.

Charette said he and other officers worry about cuts in staffing.

"I remember a time when I knew if a fight broke out, man, it was like a wave of blue, you could just see them coming, you could hear them coming," Charette said.

Now, the officers in blue uniforms worry about who will come to help them.

"Now, it's got officers worried that if it's an officer issue, 'How long is it going to take before my buddies get there?'"

During an interview in May at the Maryland Correctional Institution south of Hagerstown, Charette said he knows he never can let down his guard.

A member of the honor guard, Charette said he was unable to serve at Wroten's funeral on Feb. 2, 2006, but he will be on call if his fellow officers need him - he's trained for riot control.

In his 12-plus years as an officer, Charette said he has seen fluctuations in the state's commitment to safety, but the attitudes of inmates consistently have worsened. Only about 30 percent of inmates are, in his view, "decent guys."

"I think the gang activity at all the prisons has gotten up really high," said Charette, who called the tensions between groups such as the Bloods and Crips a "power struggle."

"I even heard other inmates say, 'Man, I can't believe these younger guys,'" Charette said. "They're just, as they would say, 'off the hook.'"

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