Staying the course

August 09, 2006

Mary Ann Saar isn't easily intimidated. The corrections union is calling for her head and state lawmakers are calling her to task for understaffing in Maryland prisons. But Ms. Saar, the state's public safety secretary, is confident that her agency is on track to fill those gaps - and statistics from her office bear out her assertion. The secretary says she is staying the course. And the only deviation so far has been her decision to try to demolish the antiquated House of Correction sooner.

She's right about that. The 19th-century Jessup prison, where a correctional officer was killed last week, has outlived its purpose. But a legislative audit's account of increased prison violence at a time of staffing reductions and cuts in overtime in Ms. Saar's tenure suggests that part of the staffing problems rest with the administration.

The union's concerns about adequate staffing - there are 505 vacant corrections officer positions statewide - and its impact on a safe working environment can't be underestimated. Recruitment only recently improved when the Ehrlich administration increased the starting pay for corrections officers; so far this year, the state has hired 778 corrections officers compared with 935 for all of 2005. State officials also predict that by year's end they will have interviewed 4000 prison guard applicants; that's more than a third more candidates than were interviewed in 2005.

But the state has to be as rigorous in retaining good officers - and weeding out those whose integrity has been compromised. In the fiscal year that ended in July, six officers across the state had been fired, which indicates that no one is looking very hard to find compromised officers. Ms. Saar also needs to offer incentives to keep good officers on the job - but she can't do that without additional funding from her boss. Offering hardship pay to those working in tough prisons and reinstituting specialized training to deal with gangs would be a start.

Right now, there is a primary focus on cleaning up the House of Correction. A new warden is in place and if other personnel changes need to be made, we expect Ms. Saar to make them - now.

Yesterday, the secretary explained to a state legislative committee the efforts under way to improve staffing. She didn't get a chance to discuss the safety implications of providing inmates - in every prison - with meaningful ways to stay busy. That conversation can't be postponed for too much longer.

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