Gaps in prison staffing

August 06, 2006

The recent murder of corrections Officer David McGuinn pointed up the state's reliance on a century-old, run-down prison to house about half of the system's maximum-security inmates. It's a situation that won't change until construction at a new prison in Cumberland is completed in January 2008. Until then, state prison officials have to contend with a more pressing concern - how to keep Maryland's prisons adequately and safely staffed.

At the time of Officer McGuinn's murder, the House of Correction had 47 vacancies among its staff of 312 guards. The problem is acute at the Jessup-area prisons, but it's a systemwide concern. Of 6,188 corrections officer jobs, about 451 were vacant as of June 30, prison officials say.

When a prison is short-staffed, corrections officers work overtime; if no one volunteers, guards may need to work back-to-back shifts. The House of Correction spent about $3.4 million on overtime in the fiscal year that ended July 1. That's a fraction of what hiring guards on overtime cost the entire prison system - $28.2 million, double what was spent in the previous fiscal year and twice the cost of filling most of its vacancies.

The job of a corrections officer is tough enough on the best day in the most modern prison. But working a double shift in a 128-year-old prison stacked with lifers and murderers in 100-degree heat - think about that. Recruiting can't be easy.

A recent $5,000 increase in the starting salary for corrections officers - now at $34,313 - has helped Maryland hire 341 officers since April. But hiring hasn't kept pace with vacancies. Maryland pays more than Delaware, Virginia and Pennsylvania, but a new officer at the House of Correction could work at Montgomery County's jail for about the same money and fewer headaches.

The problem of recruiting and retaining corrections staff is not Maryland's alone. In a 2000 survey by the American Correctional Association, 27 prison systems reported recruitment problems; Kansas, Kentucky, Ohio, Wyoming and Maryland also noted specific concerns in hiring at rural prisons. Utah hired a retention specialist, and Oklahoma worked in a partnership with its state university to recruit new officers.

Another salary increase may help in Maryland, but working conditions and benefits also are key. The state could offer incentive pay to those working in tough prisons. Focusing inmates on something productive also can improve prison culture; a yearlong survey of violence and abuse in prisons found that idleness contributes to violence as much as inadequate staffing compromises safety. Yet Maryland lawmakers have been reluctant to support expanding prison programs. That, too, must change.

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