Prison violence summit urged

Call from union leader comes after 2 officers stabbed at Jessup facility

March 31, 2006|By GREG GARLAND | GREG GARLAND,SUN REPORTER

The stabbing of two correctional officers Wednesday night has prompted union officials to call on Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to hold a "prison safety summit" on the rise in violence in Maryland's prisons.

The stabbings at the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup were the third serious attack on correctional officers this year. A prison guard in Hagerstown was killed in January about two weeks after an uprising by 19 inmates at a Cumberland prison left three officers injured.

The officers who were stabbed at the Jessup prison Wednesday were flown to Maryland Shock Trauma Center. One was released yesterday; the other remained hospitalized in fair condition, according to a prison system spokeswoman.

Ron Bailey, executive director of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees Council 92, said violence in the state's prisons has reached a crisis stage. Assaults on correctional officers at maximum-security facilities doubled over the past two fiscal years, he said.

"This is a problem that requires urgent attention," Bailey said.

He complained that the Ehrlich administration has refused repeated requests to meet with union representatives about safety concerns and he called for a summit to discuss ways to restore control of the prisons.

An administration spokeswoman said the governor and public safety Secretary Mary Ann Saar have met with wardens and rank-and-file officers and are taking steps to address safety and other concerns.

Jacqui Lampell, the spokeswoman, noted that Ehrlich included across-the-board pay raises averaging more than 6 percent for correctional officers in next year's budget, as well as money for 160 new positions and equipment.

She said rehabilitation programs to get inmates to change their way of thinking are a key to reducing violence. "This administration is not satisfied with rhetoric when it comes to changing the way the corrections system is run," Lampell said.

Bailey said he is glad that Ehrlich is restoring some prison jobs he had previously cut and is raising pay, but union officials say it will be tough to keep the jobs filled unless the state addresses safety issues.

"A pay raise is nice, but it's going to be impossible to recruit and retain officers if they are concerned they might not return home to their family at night," said Bernard Ralph, president of the AFSMCE local at the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup.

Bailey called on Ehrlich to create a task force of correctional officers, union representatives and administration officials to review security procedures and establish safe staffing ratios for all of the state's prisons.

Priscilla Doggett, a spokeswoman for the prison system, said Wednesday's stabbings happened about 9 p.m. as a correctional officer was making his rounds. He was attacked by three inmates, at least two of whom were wielding homemade knives, she said. An officer who responded was also attacked.

She declined to identify the officers, but said the guard who was the initial target is 29 years old and is a seven-year veteran of the prison system. He was released from the hospital yesterday. The other officer, 23, had been on the job for three months, Doggett said. He was in fair condition at Shock Trauma late yesterday, she said.

The prison is on lockdown - meaning inmates are confined largely to their cells - while the incident is investigated, Doggett said. The inmates who stabbed the officers were transferred to the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center in Baltimore, more commonly known as Supermax.

The stabbings come at a time when prison officials are tightening security procedures in an effort to stem the flow of drugs, cell phones and other contraband into the state's prisons. The trade in contraband contributes to violence in the prisons, officials say.

A string of serious inmate-on-inmate stabbings at the House of Correction last year led corrections officials to transfer dozens of long-term inmates to North Branch Correctional Institution in Cumberland. Those inmates were involved in the uprising in January.

greg.garland@baltsun.com

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