Corrections crisis

April 01, 1991

A Baltimore grand jury has reported that the city jail is "dangerously understaffed" and is unsafe for both inmates and employees. Unfortunately, that kind of news is becoming old hat. Instead of producing decisive remedial actions, the festering crisis in correction systems across the country never seems to attract enough public concern to produce real reform.

Secretary Bishop Robinson of Maryland's Department of Public Safety and Corrections is fond of pointing out that corrections has been the neglected stepchild of the law enforcement system. When millions of federal dollars were pouring into police departments in the 1960s and '70s -- including scholarship programs to attract and train better, more professional officers -- nothing comparable was being done for prisons and the people who run them.

Consequently, while many police departments around the country saw substantial improvement in the caliber of cops on the beat, corrections facilities continued to rely on low-paid employees who had little education or training and virtually no respect from the outside world. No wonder so many prison systems have been virtually taken over by the federal courts.

To his credit, Robinson is looking beyond the quick fixes to the larger problems behind the corrections crisis. Among those problems is the lack of programs to attract qualified corrections officers, people who can be expected to enter the system as prison guards and work their way up to the top -- a career path that Robinson and others have taken in police work. Robinson hopes to inaugurate one such plan -- a corrections cadet program -- when the state opens a prison now being planned for Western Maryland.

Cadets, recent high school graduates, would work most of the week in administrative capacities at the prison, but would be given time and tuition to enroll in two college courses per semester. After three years in the program, they would become full-fledged corrections officers and could continue their college educations with help from the tuition reimbursement program for state employees.

A corrections cadet program is only one part of the solution to the corrections crisis. But it represents the kind of long-term vision that is necessary to create a corrections system that will actually work.

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