Maryland prison staffing ‘crisis’ endangers inmates, officers

Written by BALTIMORE SUN EDITORIAL BOARD on 01/21/2020

If you want to be an entry level correctional officer in Maryland, this is what you can look forward to, according to a job description posted by the state: being on call 24 hours a day and subduing and restraining inmates “during fights, riots and escape attempts.” You’ll be required to undergo firearms training, routine drug testing and a background check.

And that’s all for a starting salary as low as $42,013 a year — or about $20 an hour for a 40-hour work week. That might be enough for a single person to support themselves, but it’s $10 an hour short (or $19,430 a year) if you add even one child into the household mix, according to a living wage calculator developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

And here’s what the post doesn’t tell you: You’ll be part of a team that’s required to work surprise double-shifts and under constant threat from both physical harm (you’re always outnumbered) and basic temptation. Remember last month’s indictment of more than two dozen correctional officers and staff members on charges of conspiracy, gang participation and misconduct in office? Or how about the correctional officer indictments from 2018, 2017 or 2016 — the biggest prison corruption case in Maryland history? When you’re barely getting by, subject to constant stress and surrounded by people with criminal means and muscle (and maybe a shiv or two), making a quick buck the wrong way might seem more attractive to you than, say, if you were working in customer service or data entry in some office park.

Oh, and that team of yours is chronically understaffed, by the way, which heightens all the other negatives. A report by Sun reporter Luke Broadwater this weekend outlined a “staffing crisis” in Maryland’s prisons, with 20% of the correctional officer positions unfilled, and an out-of-control overtime bill: $129 million in 2019 — more than triple the cost from just six years earlier.

Such "excessive overtime usage is not only concerning due to the budget," J. Ryan Bishop, director of the Office of Policy Analysis within the Department of Legislative Services, wrote in a letter to lawmakers Jan. 9, but because it contributes to “unhealthy and unsafe conditions” for correctional officers, administrative staff and inmates. Assault rates within Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services facilities went up in fiscal years 2016, ‘17 and ’18, according to Mr. Bishop.

The officer shortage has been a problem since calendar year 2015, when Gov. Larry Hogan took office. Mr. Hogan says that’s because the job is a tough one, and points to correctional officer vacancy issues across the country. But the job was tough before he became governor; that’s not new, just the shortage. In fact, the job vacancy rate across state government has doubled since 2014, which isn’t all that surprising under a Republican administration seeking to shrink government. But such cost savings in the corrections world could lead to disaster for overworked officers and understaffed facilities.

The Hogan administration has hired a new corrections head and taken recent steps to improve the recruitment process, but more importantly, officials must significantly improve working conditions and officer retention. Two programs offering bonuses for meeting certain milestones are rarely used, suggesting “that few COs are performing at a high level and few COs would recommend their job to family and friends,” Mr. Bishop wrote. One program offered employees a $500 finder’s fee for referring successful CO candidates; it was used only six times since fiscal year 2018.

Among those who study correctional workforce needs, some basic themes arise in the development of a satisfied and effective employee base: improved screening, clear mission, high standards, well-prepared (and valued) staff and room for advancement.
Better screening leads to selecting workers better suited to the job. A clear mission, preferably one that prioritizes human-services over surveillance, tells them what to expect now and in the future and how to treat one another and inmates. Specific competency standards boost professionalism and the working environment. Regular training empowers workers, improves their performance and helps keep them safe through best practices. And a path to promotion that includes leadership development, gives workers something to work toward.

And of course, there’s the pay. The national average for correctional workers is around Maryland’s starting rate, but in Pennsylvania, which has a 1% vacancy rate for correctional officers, it’s $63,360.