High-level changes possible in prison system

Officials under fire amid rash of prison violence

August 08, 2006|By GADI DECHTER | GADI DECHTER,SUN REPORTER

On the eve of an emergency legislative hearing into deadly conditions at Maryland correctional facilities, Public Safety and Correctional Services Secretary Mary Ann Saar declined to express confidence in her prison chief, and said changes to top staff are being considered.

Asked yesterday during a conference call with reporters whether she had confidence in Division of Correction Commissioner Frank C. Sizer Jr., Saar said, "I deal through my deputy [Mary Livers], in whom I have a great deal of confidence. I listen to my executive staff on recommendations, and these are all discussions we are having now."

Saar and other administration officials will be questioned this morning at an emergency General Assembly subcommittee hearing scheduled in the aftermath of the fatal stabbing last month of correctional officer David McGuinn, who was killed on duty by inmates at the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup.

Facing intense criticism for a surge of violence at state prisons, Saar defended her job performance during the session with reporters and criticized the legislature for failing to provide enough money for her plan to make rehabilitation a central focus of incarceration. She also blamed a robust economy for persistent staff vacancies and high turnover at prisons, particularly in the Jessup area.

In response to a question about whether high-level personnel changes were pending, Saar said: "We're looking into that."

Saar's lack of a vote of confidence in Sizer implies that the commissioner may pay for the attacks with his job, said Ron Bailey, a correctional officer's union official who has been outspoken in his criticism of the secretary's leadership for what he calls her department's failure to ensure the safety of officers.

"I believe there will be an effort by [Saar and Livers] to make Sizer a scapegoat, but Commissioner Sizer is only the commissioner. It's Saar and Livers who are calling all the shots."

Neither Sizer nor Livers was available for comment late yesterday.

McGuinn's murder was the fourth killing at the House of Correction since May. The earlier three were all inmate-on-inmate stabbings.

Two other correctional officers suffered nonfatal stabbings by inmates at the Jessup prison in March. In January, a prison officer from Hagerstown was shot to death with his own gun by an inmate he was guarding at a hospital.

At the time of McGuinn's killing, there were 47 staff vacancies at the House of Correction, a maximum-security facility that has been among the most difficult to keep staffed, said Saar.

Annual staff turnover at the prison was 38 percent during the budget year that ended in June, compared with an average of 28 percent statewide, according to authorities.

But Saar said vacancies and turnover did not explain the unusually high levels of violence there, noting that the adjacent House of Correction Annex - a maximum-security prison on the same Jessup campus - has had similar personnel problems but fewer incidents.

"The Annex also has 47 vacancies, but they haven't had any issues," she said.

Saar singled out corruption by a "small minority" of officers who help inmates at the prison traffic in weapons, drugs and other contraband as a chief contributor of problems there.

"I'm very sad to say that we do have some corrupt correctional officers who don't seem to understand that some of the things they do affect them all, and we are doing our best to cull them out," Saar said.

The House of Correction is in the midst of a "shakedown," in which officers try to root out inmate contraband, such as homemade weapons and cell phones. Saar said results of the shakedown were "not ready for release."

She also declined to say whether any disciplinary actions against allegedly corrupt correctional officers had been meted out since the stabbing.

State Sen. James E. DeGrange Sr., an Anne Arundel County Democrat and chairman of the public safety budget subcommittee holding today's hearing, said lawmakers would not be content with vague answers.

"Quite frankly, we need to have definitive answers," DeGrange said. "What are they doing about gang activity? How are they going to handle staffing levels? What are their plans? What is their direction?"

DeGrange said that lawmakers might threaten to withhold funding for the prison system next year if they do not get satisfactory answers to their questions.

Saar said that more funding is needed, particularly to increase support for RESTART, a rehabilitation program being tested at two institutions. That approach, she said, is key to controlling inmates' bad behavior.gadi.dechter@baltsun.com

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