Prisons chief defends her job

Correctional officers' deaths incite calls for Saar's resignation

August 07, 2006|By GREG GARLAND | GREG GARLAND,SUN REPORTER

The killing of two Maryland correctional officers this year amid a wave of prison violence hasn't shaken Public Safety Secretary Mary Ann Saar's confidence that she has set the right course for the state's prison system.

As union leaders clamor for her head and legislators demand answers, Saar insists that her policies are not the problem, but that other factors are to blame.

She said she remains convinced that a key to reducing prison violence over the long term is putting rehabilitative programs in place that will keep inmates constructively engaged.

"I'd like to stay on course if it's possible," Saar said last week, "because that seems to be the problem with various correctional systems. They keep making leadership changes and changing their philosophies."

Saar, 65, appears to have the solid support of her boss, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who has said publicly she has his full faith and confidence.

"He has told me that he fully supports me in what I do," Saar said of conversations she has had with the governor since the stabbing death of correctional officer David McGuinn on July 25 at a Jessup prison.

Saar, in turn, voiced confidence in the people she has overseeing state prison operations.

"My deputy [Mary Livers] has one of the best backgrounds in corrections you can have and is nationally recognized," Saar said. "The rest of the people report to her, and as far as I know, they've been doing their jobs."

But with two correctional officers killed while on duty this year - the first since Herman L. Toulson was slain in 1984 - others say it is clear that drastic changes are needed.

"People are dying on this administration's watch, and something needs to be done," said state Sen. James E. DeGrange Sr., an Anne Arundel County Democrat. "They need to change direction, and, frankly, I don't see that happening, and I don't think there's the will to do that."

DeGrange, who chairs a public safety subcommittee, and other House and Senate leaders have called an emergency hearing for 10 a.m. tomorrow in Annapolis to examine safety issues in the prison system.

A top union official says correctional officers have lost confidence in Saar because of her policies - and are angry over the deaths of their two colleagues. Besides McGuinn, Jeffery A. Wroten, 44, was shot in the head in January at a Western Maryland hospital while guarding an inmate.

"She has ideas about programs, and those programs are fine, but I think she forgot the No. 1 priority, which is public safety and security," said Ron Bailey, executive director of the American Federation of State, Council and Municipal Employees Council 92.

Not true, says a spokeswoman for Saar.

"We've never forgotten that the No. 1 priority is public safety and security," said Jacqui Lampell, the spokeswoman. "To prove it, we have invested in correctional officer salaries and in safety equipment and training for officers."

But Bailey said Saar needs to be held accountable for the violence in prisons.

"I'm saying it should start from the top," Bailey said. "Mary Ann Saar definitely has to go. ... Without a change in administrations, I don't think she will go."

Saar, a native of Estonia, has a background in corrections that dates to the 1960s when she worked as a probation officer to pay her way through the University of Maryland School of Law. She became Maryland's first female deputy state's attorney in 1977, holding that position in Baltimore.

She has worked for Republicans, Democrats and independents. She was former Gov. William Donald Schaefer's juvenile services secretary from 1991 to 1995 and an associate commissioner of juvenile services under Maine Gov. Angus King, an independent. She then went to work for Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat.

After Ehrlich took office in 2003, she applied over the Internet for a position heading juvenile services. She says she was told the job was filled but was asked whether she would be interested in heading the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. Her confirmation by legislators went smoothly.

During her decades of public service, Saar has developed a network of influential friends who admire and respect her, including former state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman.

"She's one competent person," said Hoffman, who has known Saar for 20 years. "She's really a good, smart executive. ... I don't know whether her job is in jeopardy, but it shouldn't be. To think that by changing the secretary you're going to automatically correct the problems in Jessup is not logical."

The widespread distaste for Saar among corrections officers is well-known, Hoffman said. She believes the tension stems from Saar's decision to reorganize staff and move some employees to different facilities.

Some critics contend that Saar has allowed staffing and security to drop to unsafe levels while pouring resources into RESTART, a program of rehabilitative services - an assertion Saar vigorously denies.

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