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Prison officers might work longer days

January 22, 2009|By ERIN CUNNINGHAM

ANNAPOLIS -- Officials are considering longer work days for Maryland correctional officers, a decision some say would put the workers at risk.

Unions representing those officers and some members of Washington County's delegation in Annapolis say the 12-hour shifts would make prisons, including the three south of Hagerstown, less safe.

Correctional employees currently work eight-hour shifts.

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley's proposed budget, which was released Wednesday, includes a move to 12-hour shifts for all corrections employees, including correctional officers and support staff. That change is expected to save the state $8 million in overtime costs.

Similar proposals have been made in the past, but received little support in Maryland's General Assembly or from labor unions.The proposed budget also includes about $1.7 million in cuts for Roxbury Correctional Institution and an additional $1.3 million in cuts for Maryland Correctional Training Center.

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Maryland Correctional Institution-Hagerstown received a $500,000 increase in funding in the state's fiscal year 2010 general fund budget, according to budget documents.

Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr., R-Washignton/Allegany, said correctional officers who favor their current eight-hour shifts know best what they can handle, and he has heard them say they oppose longer shifts. Myers said he would support lengthened shifts for support staff in prisons, who are not "on the front lines."

"You always have to be on your toes," Myers said.

Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, is against 12-hour work days for correctional officers, and said that the employees he has spoken to also oppose them. He said officers are concerned about the effect of longer shifts on their safety. Morale and family concerns also have been mentioned.

"I don't see how this could conceivably be worth any consideration," Shank said.

Sen. Alex X. Mooney, R-Frederick/Washington, disagreed, saying he did not understand why longer shifts would harm safety or families.

"It appears to be family friendly," Mooney said. "You can work a longer shift, have more time at home, less time commuting."

Mooney said 12-hour shifts for correctional employees are a "win-win," and he said he supports the decision.

Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, said he did not support 12-hour shifts when they were proposed last year, and he will not support them this year for any worker in a state prison.

"That job is too tough to work 12 hours," Munson said. "It's too emotionally demanding. It's too dangerous to work 12 hours."

Ronald Smith said his union does not support the longer shift. Smith is a labor relations specialist in the Cumberland branch of the Maryland Classified Employees Association, which has members in the three prisons near Hagerstown.

Patrick Moran, Director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees - which represents all 3,200 correctional officers in Maryland - said his union opposes the 12-hour shifts, citing the same concerns as MCEA.

"It's a very stressful situation," Moran said of working in a prison. "It's a very dangerous situation. Obviously, safety is paramount."

Moran said he was not aware that O'Malley would propose longer shifts for correctional employees.

Smith said the proposed funding cuts for prisons in Washington County also will jeopardize the safety of officers.

"Every inmate depends on being taken care of in there," Smith said. "If the money isn't there to take care of them, their dispositions change. They lash out at support staff."

Del. Richard B. Weldon Jr., who is unaffiliated and represents parts of Washington and Frederick counties, said there was a need for the budget to be cut this year, and that correctional officers are lucky to only be the focus of a longer shift, and not a reduction in staff.

"If any layoffs occur in the institutions whatsoever, it will definitely have an impact on the daily operations" Smith said.

Weldon said it would be possible to require 12-hour shifts now, and then in two years - when he believes the economy will pick up - correctional officers could be returned to eight-hour shifts.

Del. Andrew A. Serafini, R-Washington, said he has some concerns about the proposal, but wants more information about its impact.

"I want to make sure we're not doing anything to jeopardize those workers," he said.

Munson said it's likel the General Assembly will find $8 million or more to cut from O'Malley's proposed budget, which would make up the savings from the shift change and perhaps eliminate the need to lengthen officers' shifts.

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