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Prison series demonstrates the need for major changes

August 12, 2007

Today The Herald-Mail concludes a three-part series on the state prison complex south of Hagers-town.

Erin Julius and Karen Hanna interviewed wardens, correctional officers and inmates, in an effort to find out what goes on inside the three facilities and what might be done to improve the system.

Several things seem clear. Mary Ann Saar, the last Maryland Public Safety Secretary, foolishly bought into the idea that some local prisons were overstaffed, despite the fact that today's inmates are more violent and more likely to join prison gangs.

Saar's mistake led officers to reject Project RESTART, her inmate rehabilitation program, because they perceived that the program was coming at the expense of their safety.

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Such distrust within the correctional system cannot continue. Just as an army cannot function in battle if its soldiers don't believe in their generals, the correctional system cannot succeed if its officers don't have faith in the programs promoted by their leaders.

If the local prison complex is to succeed in its mission, a number of things must happen. They include:

A strategy for combatting prison gangs. Gary Maynard, the state's new Secretary of Public Safety and Correctional Services told the Gazette newspapers soon after his appointment that getting the gangs under control was a top priority.

The security and safety of the staff and the inmates must be the first priority. Once that is established, then - and only then - other programs can be introduced.

Adequate staffing. Recruitment of new officers will fail if potential recruits believe that there won't be enough officers to respond in an emergency.

Programs to deal with addiction and rehabilitation. Most prisoners have problems with alcohol and drug abuse. They need help with these issues before they're released.

More effective discipline for disruptive inmates. Part of that includes creating new jobs so that more inmates have a stake in behaving, so that they can keep on working.

Changing the prisoner-release program, so that inmates who called Baltimore or Prince George's County home - and were sentenced there - go back after they've done their time. Washington County has enough home-grown offenders to handle without dealing with an influx of metro-area people.

Will these things happen?

Much depends on Maynard, the state's new Secretary of Public Safety.

Maynard took decisive action quickly, touring the notorious House of Correction in Jessup, Md., within days of his appointment, then leading the effort to close down the 129-year-old facility.

Soon after, Maynard said his top priorities included starting programs to help inmates re-enter society and beginning leadership development for staff.

Under Maynard's leadership in Iowa, the prison system there became a charter agency, which exempted it from across-the-board cuts.

Maynard will get to talk about his record on Wednesday, Aug. 29, when he will speak at a breakfast meeting of the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce.

We urge the community's business and political leaders to turn out in force that day for two reasons: To show their support for the men and women who work in local prisons and to tell Maynard that they expect him to lead the system in a positive direction.

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