Md. boosting incentives to recruit correctional officers

The incentives are part of a strategy to reduce the number of vacancies in the ranks of officers at its prisons and state-run pretrial detention facilities

By Michael Dresser
The Baltimore Sun

BALTIMORE — Maryland will offer a $5,000 recruitment bonus to new correctional officers to alleviate a persistent problem with vacancies in the state prison system.

Stephen T. Moyer, the secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, will hold a news conference Thursday outside a recently closed part of the old Baltimore City Detention Center to announce the incentive.

According to a department notice, Moyer will announce that the department will offer any recruit who completes training at its academy a $2,000 bonus. Officers who successfully complete their one-year probationary period will be given an extra $3,000.

The incentives are part of a strategy the Hogan administration has adopted to reduce the number of vacancies in the ranks of officers at its prisons and state-run pretrial detention facilities.

Vacancies ballooned in the 1½ years of the Hogan administration, from about 325 the month he was inaugurated to more than 700 in October 2016. While the number of prisoners in state prisons and jails has decreased by about 7 percent over the past two years, the increase in vacancies has far outpaced that decline, according to numbers obtained through a public records request.

The reduced staff led to complaints from correctional officers and their union about forced overtime and more dangerous conditions.

Department officials have since reported that they filled more than 300 of those vacancies as of July by downsizing one large facility and closing others, freeing officers to be assigned to facilities with staff shortages. But officials concede that hiring new officers to replace retiring veterans remains a challenge.

Moyer will make the announcement outside the Jail Industries Building, which last month became the final part of the old city jail to close after Gov. Larry Hogan ordered the decrepit facility shut down in 2015.

The department already offers a $500 incentive to employees who recommend a successful correctional officer candidate. It has also held job fairs and advertised on billboards to drum up interest. But correctional officers report that recent recruiting classes have been too small to make serious inroads into the vacancy problem.

Jazzmen Knoderer, a spokeswoman for AFSCME Council 3, said the announcement confirms what the union and its members have been saying for years.

“For too long, the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services didn’t take the initiative to attract new officers. A hiring bonus is a small step toward addressing the staffing crisis,” she said. “The Hogan administration needs to develop a strategy to retain officers with years of experience who are currently working in dangerously understaffed corrections facilities across Maryland.”

While the department says it has alleviated the vacancies at some of its facilities, others still report high vacancy rates. State figures show the Maryland Correctional Institution at Jessup still had 59 vacancies in July — up from 18 in January 2015. Eastern Correctional Institution in Somerset County, where 18 correctional officers were indicted after a corruption probe in 2016, still had 45 vacancies as of July — twice the number at the start of 2015.

Gary W. McLhinney, the department’s director of professional standards, acknowledged in a recent interview that the department has faced challenges in hiring.

“We are short correctional officers, and we have been doing everything we can, including working with the union, to try and find qualified people to join our department,” he said. “It is a national problem in public safety.”

McLhinney said one barrier to hiring is a law passed by the General Assembly in the aftermath of the 2013 Black Guerrilla Family scandal at the city jail that requires applicants for correctional officer positions to take polygraph tests. He said the tests had excluded a significant percentage of applicants.

“It’s the law, and we’re going to follow it,” he said.

McLhinney said the vacancies have not compromised security. “We staff 100 percent of out custody positions every day,” he said.

McLhinney conceded that staffing those posts has required a lot of overtime — both voluntary and mandatory.

Union members say the amount of overtime — up to 80 hours every two weeks — takes a toll.

“When you work and don’t get your proper rest, you get burnt out,” said Cherie Finney, a 14-year corrections corporal at Jessup Correctional Institution.

Finney said that as the department has tightened its hiring standards, it has not raised pay or improved conditions. She said that even when new officers come into the system, they don’t stay long because working conditions are better in the counties.

“You really don’t have any new officers,” she said.

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