Rehab behind bars

February 19, 2007

Gov. Martin O'Malley's commitment to increased safety in Maryland prisons makes for good politics. It won't be good public policy, however, until Mr. O'Malley invests more in inmate and rehabilitation training programs.

Mr. O'Malley announced last week that he was funding 155 new correctional officers at about $6.7 million, a decision that addresses complaints of correctional officers who say the prisons were understaffed during the Ehrlich administration. It also appeals to Western Maryland lawmakers who care deeply about jobs in their area.

But the governor's budget lacks any comparable increase in prisoner rehabilitation and training programs - and that's a problem. These programs need to be expanded - not simply maintained. A safe prison isn't measured only in the numbers of correctional officers. It depends too on the number of prisoners who are gainfully occupied in education classes, job training and personal development.

Mr. O'Malley has pledged to fully fund rehabilitation and training programs, yet he offered no specifics and instead criticized the previous administration for favoring prison reforms at the expense of safety.

But the Ehrlich administration's prison reform effort, known as RESTART, never advanced beyond two prisons. Inmates didn't then, and don't now, have ready access to all programs that could benefit them.

For example, Maryland Correctional Enterprises runs four workshops at the 2,076-inmate Maryland Correctional Institution in Hagerstown. There are 113 inmates on a waiting list to work in MCE's meat plant, upholstery and metal shops, and the brush- and carton-making unit. In the 12 months ending last July, MCE employed 1,608 prisoners, but in a system of 20,000-plus prisoners, that can hardly meet the need.

The ability of the prisons to treat offenders with a drug or alcohol problem is just as underwhelming. Of the estimated 16,800 inmates with an addiction, fewer than a fifth, or about 2,950, can be treated annually.

The new public safety secretary, Gary D. Maynard, is a proponent of work programs and favors using inmate labor on municipal projects, according to his staff. But a pick and shovel won't be enough. Some 9,000 inmates return to communities yearly. They need education and employment training that make sense in today's job market if Maryland hopes to reduce the number of ex-offenders who return to its prisons.

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