Union criticizes Ehrlich prison plan, fearing correctional-officer job loss

1st organized opposition against his shift in policy

December 03, 2003|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

The governor's plan to offer more education and drug treatment for inmates would eliminate hundreds of corrections-officer positions needed to maintain prison security, a union said yesterday.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees said Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s plan would compound existing prison staff shortages by leaving officers' posts unfilled as they leave or retire. The positions would be taken by counselors, social workers or others involved in rehabilitation.

The union's objections, delivered at a Baltimore news conference, amounted to the first organized opposition to Ehrlich's plan to shift corrections policy in the state.

The plan, announced last month, is called RESTART, for Re-entry Enforcement and Services Targeting Addiction, Rehabilitation and Treatment.

The union, representing thousands of corrections officers and case managers, supports any "legitimate" plan to equip prisoners for life on the outside, said Zachary Ramsey, executive director of AFSCME Council 92.

But Ramsey said the governor's plan "will not bring about that result. RESTART is merely liberal sheep's clothing wrapped around old-fashioned slash-and-burn budget cutting."

He said the state had promised more -- not less -- corrections staff after 16 officers were injured when inmates rioted in May 1997 at the House of Correction Annex in Jessup.

While hundreds of officers have been added since then, many prisons remain understaffed, he said. "And now the Ehrlich administration wants to make us turn back to the good old days of the conditions that led to the Jessup riot," Ramsey said.

The administration disputed Ramsey's claim that the state's 27 Division of Correction facilities are inadequately staffed.

"We are absolutely not going to jeopardize public safety or put our correctional officers in danger," said Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

He said the state recently completed a study that found an excess of 218 correctional officers in the prison system. The review was done with the aid of the National Institute of Corrections, an agency within the U.S. Justice Department that provides technical assistance to state and local officials.

Based on that study, the Ehrlich administration said it would soon begin gradually shifting those jobs to counselors and teachers through attrition -- a tactic that would avoid layoffs.

Under RESTART, the administration plans to significantly upgrade inmate programs in education, job training and substance abuse treatment. Also proposed is a behavior modification program teaching prisoners to deal with conflict.

"We want inmates to make the transition more successfully back into society," Vernarelli said.

About half of all inmates freed in Maryland are locked up again within three years, officials said. The state released about 15,000 prisoners last year and has about 28,000 behind bars.

AFSCME disputed the staffing study's conclusions, noting recent inmate fights at the Jessup prison and at the Maryland House of Correction.

"If they are overstaffed, how do these repeated, relentless attacks occur on fellow inmates and corrections officers?" said Joe Lawrence, a spokesman for AFSCME.

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