State looks to veterans to serve as corrections officers

Corrections department values experience, discipline of former service members

September 25, 2014|By Joe Burris | The Baltimore Sun

Maryland's prison officials are looking for a few good men, and women, to serve as corrections officers in the state's detention centers.

Recruiters from the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services have been visiting military installations in search of candidates who have already been successful in a highly structured organization.

The effort follows last year's drug-smuggling scandal at the state-run jail in Baltimore. Corrections spokesman Gerard Shields said the outreach to service members and veterans is not a response to the scandal, in which more than a dozen guards were indicted on charges of helping gang members and inmates smuggle drugs and other contraband into the jail. But he said the department can use the experience and discipline of former military personnel.

The effort addresses a couple of state priorities. The General Assembly this year approved $4.1 million to hire 100 new corrections officers. And the O'Malley administration has promoted hiring veterans, with the aim of bringing the population to full employment by the end of next year.

Shields said the department hired 159 people this summer during Operation Hire, a 100-day drive sponsored by Gov. Martin O'Malley. Now recruiters are looking to fill positions for corrections sergeants, captains and majors.

For military veterans, recruiter Valerie Howard said, going into corrections "would be a great stepping stone for them to get a job and maybe transition into something else."

Recruiters have taken to job fairs and social media to speak to veterans and hand out fliers that borrow from the Air Force motto: "Aim High." Howard and others visited Fort Meade this week to administer examinations to applicants.

Candidates, who must be at least 21 and hold a high school diploma or GED, take a four-hour test that includes a video segment, a written examination and a biographical survey. Those who pass are offered a job — salaries start at $37,507, plus benefits — and report for 35 days of paid training.

"We wanted to highlight [veterans] and the process we can work out for them to get pushed through in a different way instead of first-come, first-served with the other participants," said Alicia Coleman, a recruitment and exam manager.

The effort hasn't yet produced big numbers. No one showed up last week for the first session. Three people came for the session on Tuesday.

"I'm getting out after 14 years, and I want to get onto the professional field," said Damon Roark, 37, a non-commissioned officer in the Navy.

Roark heard about the test while taking a class at Fort Meade as part of the Transition Assistance Program for military personnel who are close to separating from their service.

Its manager, George Matthews, said veterans looking for work often face obstacles that civilians don't.

"Most folks in the military enter either right out of high school or directly out of college," Matthews said. "By the time it arrives for them to get out, whether it's four years or 20-plus years approaching retirement, they have no experience in acquiring jobs in a sector outside the military.

"We know that the process for getting jobs outside the military is quite different in terms of strategies and even language. It's important someone teaches them what that process is like on the outside."

Juan Mitchell, a National Guardsman, said having a first civilian job lined up can help veterans plan for continuing education and better jobs later.

"It's crucial. It's critical," said Mitchell, 50, who lives in Washington. "In a lot of the work force now, [everyone] has a degree."

Mitchell said it's difficult to juggle military duties and higher education.

"So, you get your foot in the door, and once you're inside you can start working toward your degree — you've got your G.I. Bill and other things," he said. "The key is to get your foot in the door."

Corrections officials are planning two more testing sessions in October. They say they don't have a specific goal for applicants, but Coleman said they remain confident the numbers coming to take the test will grow.

"Based on the success," she said, "we will decide whether we will do this every two months here."

joseph.burris@baltsun.com

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