Three Washington County delegates named to safety and security commission

June 23, 2013|By KAUSTUV BASU |

Three members of Washington County’s delegation to the Maryland General Assembly have been named to a joint commission to study safety and security issues in the state’s correctional facilities in the wake of a scandal at the Baltimore City Detention Center.

In April, 13 female correctional officers were among 25 people indicted on federal charges of smuggling contraband such as cellphones and drugs into the Baltimore facility.

Sen. George C. Edwards, R-Allegany/Garrett/Washington, Sen. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, and Del. Michael J. Hough, R-Frederick/Washington, are on the committee, which is made up of seven senators and seven delegates.

The Hagerstown area has three correctional institutions, while Cumberland, Md., is home to two correctional institutions.

The Maryland Correctional Institution, Maryland Correctional Training Center and Roxbury Correctional Institution are the three facilities in the Hagerstown area.

The two facilities in the Cumberland area are the North Branch Correctional Institution and the Western Correctional Institution, according to the website of the Maryland Department of Public Safety & Correctional Services.

Edwards said there was no timetable yet for commission meetings, but he expects the body to wrap up its work by the end of this year, in time for the 2014 General Assembly session.

Shank said the committee likely will start meeting in late summer, and he perceives a sense of urgency among lawmakers to address problems.

Areas expected to be addressed include security procedures and how prisons are staffed.

Issues of note

One issue worth looking at is why the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services is in charge of running the jail in Baltimore, Shank said.

Gary Maynard, secretary of  public safety and correctional services, said at a hearing in front of state lawmakers earlier this month that he was open to the idea of moving the management of the detention center to an independent body, according to the Associated Press.

Maynard said there were conflicts in trying to run a detention center and a state corrections system in the same jurisdiction.

“They’re different systems,” the AP quoted Maynard as saying. “They are completely different. That would be, in the interim, that would be something to discuss.”

Shank said he wanted to make sure that “the tail wasn’t wagging the dog” when it comes to the committee meetings.

“We want to make sure we don’t discard something that is working in other correctional facilities in the state,” he said.

Another issue worth looking at, Shank said, was the Correctional Officers’ Bill of Rights, a measure that passed with wide support in 2010 and was intended to provide due process to officers.

That bill, signed into law in 2010, was sponsored by former state Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, who is now a Hagerstown City Council member. It received unanimous support from the House of Delegates and passed 44-2 in the state Senate.

The bill was pushed by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the union representing about 7,500 correctional employees in Maryland, including about 1,300 at the three prisons south of Hagerstown.

An FBI special agent’s affidavit that was part of the Baltimore indictment criticized the bill, calling it an “ineffective deterrent” to officers who were smuggling contraband into the jail.

“I have heard anecdotes that it has been used to protect dirty officers,” Shank said. “But at the same time, something that has merit should not be thrown out ... if it protects correctional officers who are doing their job.”

All three local delegation members on the committee said cellphones that have been smuggled into correctional facilities pose one of the biggest threats to security in jails and prisons.

During the 2013 session of the Maryland General Assembly, a cross-filed version of a bill sponsored by Shank and Sen. Joseph M. Getty, R-Baltimore County/Carroll, intended to ensure harsher penalties for those trying to or successfully smuggling cellphones into jails and prisons, stalled in committee.

Edwards said that hiring more correctional officers instead of paying overtime to existing employees could be an option.

Another might be to restrict cellphone usage by “managing them,” he said.

Hough said he was looking forward to working for the joint commission.

“I want to be a part of the solution and to make sure this does not happen again,” Hough said.

He said he would continue to support measures such as the one brought forward by Shank that would enhance penalties for those trying to or smuggling contraband into correctional facilities.

“I have an open mind on this issue,” Hough said. “We want to make sure our prison guards are safe. We want to make sure our inmates are safe.”

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