Assaults on jail guards doubled

Inmate attacks increased as staff cut, says report

August 09, 2006|By GREG GARLAND | GREG GARLAND,SUN REPORTER

Inmate assaults on Maryland correctional officers rose sharply from 2003 to 2005 -- a time when staff positions were being eliminated, overtime budgets were cut and vacancies went unfilled, a legislative panel was told yesterday.

A report summarizing how prison staffing levels affect safety was prepared by nonpartisan legislative analysts, who presented their findings to a joint hearing of Senate and House subcommittees in Annapolis yesterday.

The legislators met in emergency session to discuss a wave of recent prison violence, including the fatal stabbing of a correctional officer at the House of Correction in Jessup last month.

FOR THE RECORD - A photo caption on Page 1B yesterday misidentified Larry Franklin, deputy secretary for administration of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, who was attending a legislative hearing with corrections chief Mary Ann Saar.
The Sun regrets the errors.

Offering details from the report, analyst Rebecca Moore told legislators that total vacancies in the Division of Correction more than doubled between fiscal years 2003 and 2005 -- from 3.5 percent to 9.5 percent. More than 150 authorized positions and $5.6 million in overtime spending were cut during the same period, she reported.

"Cuts in personnel and overtime spending, coupled with high vacancy rates, coincides with increases in inmate-on-staff assault rates during the same period, especially among maximum security institutions," Moore said.

The analyst's report showed that inmate-on-staff assaults nearly doubled at maximum security prisons -- from 3.44 per 100 inmates in fiscal 2004 to 6.64 per 100 inmates in fiscal 2005.

The packed 3 1/2 -hour hearing offered legislators their first opportunity to question Public Safety and Correctional Services Secretary Mary Ann Saar and her top staff about conditions inside the prisons.

Among other things, Saar said it has been difficult to recruit correctional officers because Maryland's economy is doing well and people looking for jobs have other, more desirable options.

But state Sen. James E. DeGrange Sr., chairman of a Senate subcommittee on public safety, said the department will never be able to fill vacant positions until prison managers put a stop to the violence. "My personal opinion is, if you don't make the facilities safe, you are not going to have a pool of applicants to draw from," the Anne Arundel County Democrat told Saar.

Saar said that staffing shortages were not factors in the fatal stabbing last month of Correctional Officer David McGuinn or in the killing in January of Correctional Officer Jeffery Wroten as he guarded an inmate at a Western Maryland hospital.

However, she acknowledged that recruiting and retaining staff has been a challenge.

Pay raises and other incentives approved this year have helped to fill vacant positions in most state prisons, Saar said. But she said problems remain in the Baltimore and Jessup regions, which account for 306 of the 505 vacancies that exist system-wide.

State Sen. Ida Rubin, a Montgomery County Democrat, scolded Saar for not going to her boss, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., and insisting that he provide the financial resources needed to operate the prison system safely.

"You are leaving these people [correctional officers] open to tragedy by not filling positions as quickly as you can," Rubin said. "As far as I'm concerned, the buck stops with you."

Division of Correction Commissioner Frank C. Sizer Jr. also testified yesterday. After the hearing, Saar clarified remarks she made to reporters Monday in which she had seemed to be distancing herself from Sizer.

"I consider him a part of our team and have no plans to replace him," Saar said yesterday, referring to Sizer. However, the department is changing wardens at the House of Correction. Saar said James Peguese, assistant commissioner in charge of security, is serving temporarily as warden.

DeGrange said after the hearing that he was not satisfied with many of the responses he heard from Saar and her staff.

"I am scared to death someone else is going to die," DeGrange said. "It's a time bomb waiting to happen."

Del. Joan Cadden, an Anne Arundel County Democrat who chairs a House subcommittee on public safety, said she thought the meeting was productive.

"I believe the Secretary [Saar] paid close attention today to the comments and could hear there were concerns about areas of her staff, and it will be up to her to address those concerns," Cadden said.

greg.garland@baltsun.com

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