NATIONAL NEWS

Maryland prisons are ‘dangerously’ understaffed, union says

Apr 20, 2023, 1:22 PM

BALTIMORE (AP) — A severe staffing shortage in Maryland prisons and jails is creating dangerous conditions for both prisoners and guards, according to a report released Thursday by the union representing state correctional officers.

The report — which includes a detailed analysis of current staffing levels and assignments in Maryland’s 19 state-run facilities — calls on the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services to hire over 3,400 more correctional officers, saying the agency is operating “at an all-time low.”

The problem isn’t unique to Maryland. Corrections systems and law enforcement agencies across the country have struggled to recruit and retain officers in recent years.

During a Thursday morning news conference, union leaders said they’re hopeful Maryland’s newly elected Gov. Wes Moore, a Democrat, will take steps to address the problem after what they called a lack of action under his predecessor, Republican Larry Hogan.

In a statement Thursday afternoon, corrections spokesman Mark Vernarelli said the agency appreciates Moore’s commitment to filling vacancies across the state and getting the government “back to firing on all cylinders.” He said the department has hired 404 people already under the current administration, a 62% increase over this time last year.

Union leaders said they hope those numbers continue increasing.

“The staff shortage is extreme and creates a dangerous cycle” — officers are often forced to work overtime, which leads to burnout, high turnover and a deepening staff shortage, the report says.

Some educational programs for Maryland inmates have been shut down or scaled back because there aren’t enough officers to supervise them.

“Currently, all institutions are operating dangerously, with over 100 inmates to one officer,” the report says. “With staff resources overstretched, conditions for inmates have worsened, and levels of violence have increased while staff are being put at risk.”

Speaking during Thursday’s news conference, Maryland correctional officers raised safety concerns, saying assaults have increased as a result of the staffing shortage.

“The way we are currently staffed, there is no room for error or accidents,” said Rownite Stevens, a longtime correctional officer and union leader. “We’ve said over and over again we are understaffed, and the previous administration ignored our concerns.”

Hogan’s administration acknowledged the high vacancy rate and pledged to hire and retain more officers, including through pay raises and financial incentives, but union leaders said those efforts had little effect.

The report, which also calls for the department to fill existing vacancies, was produced under a Maryland law passed in 2017 that requires a staffing analysis of state-run correctional facilities every two years.

Its release came just days after a transgender woman sued the Maryland corrections system, saying she was improperly housed in a men’s jail, where she was sexually assaulted at knifepoint by another prisoner, subjected to frequent ridicule and denied hormone therapy in what constituted cruel and unusual punishment.

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