Jail officials rush to hire guards, other staffers Union president says officers are 'burned out' as forced overtime rises

May 07, 1998|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County jail officials said this week they are pushing to hire more correctional officers for the overburdened system, where 10 percent of the guard jobs remain vacant at a time when prisoners are crowded three to a cell.

Dorothy Williams, jail administrator, told the County Council that six employees will start next week, and nine are being screened.

She said officials are working to speed the selection process.

But her assurances at Tuesday's budget work session might not be enough to satisfy correctional officers, who have intensified criticism about staffing shortages, involuntary overtime and low pay.

"They're burned out, quite honestly," said James Clark, president of the Federation of County Employees union that represents correctional officers.

The union has complained for months about vacancies on a staff that is supposed to total 201 officers. Twenty slots are empty, though five correctional officers and one lower-paid security officer are to begin work Monday.

In addition to the 20 openings, 14 jail jobs are vacant -- five positions for security officers, who guard some access points, and nine maintenance and clerical slots.

The short-staffing means that veteran correctional officers have been forced to work involuntary overtime, including holidays. Officers also must sometimes fill vacancies for security officers or clerical workers, officials say.

Money spent on overtime is up 35 percent from last year, and officials say they need $25,000 more to get through this fiscal year, which ends June 30. For next year, jail officials are requesting $110,000 more in overtime funding than in this year's budget -- a total of $600,000.

The jail system includes two Towson complexes.

One, on Towsontown Boulevard, includes the 1956 county jail, used mostly for women; the original 1854 stone jail next door; and five trailers that house work-release and weekend prisoners.

The main detention center on Kenilworth Drive was built in 1982, and got a multimillion-dollar addition and renovation in 1994.

Together, the complexes held 1,167 people yesterday, which officials say is 34 inmates over capacity.

The oldest facilities, which hold 238 prisoners, were to have DTC been retired when the new building opened in 1982. Although money to begin planning a 1,700-bed jail is in next year's proposed budget, that relief is years away.

Correctional officers and officials say recruitment has been made difficult by low salaries.

Correctional officers start at $23,741, about $2,000 a year less than the starting pay for county police officers, and have lower retirement benefits. Jail security officers, who do not guard prisoners, start at $19,313.

Jail officials say they lose several officers each time a county police recruit class is organized. The personnel squeeze has been made worse by the firing of several officers for taking contraband such as cigarettes inside.

The complaints by correctional officers have drawn attention from council members, who last month toured the main detention center.

"I don't think it will affect security at all," County Councilman Douglas B. Riley, a Towson Republican, said of the staffing shortage. "My concern is strictly with morale."

Pub Date: 5/07/98

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