‘It’s just not safe’: Union calls on state to address staffing shortages in Maryland prisons

The union is speaking out after a corrections officer was injured earlier this month when inmates set multiple fires


By Taylor DeVille
Baltimore Sun
        
BALTIMORE, Md. — The union representing state correctional workers says prison conditions have worsened as Maryland officials have neglected staffing shortages amid a pandemic about to enter its third year.

The shortage — and the manner in which state officials have treated prison populations during the coronavirus pandemic — has led to an unsafe working environment for correctional officers and those incarcerated, union officials Monday said at a virtual news conference.

The vacancy rate for Maryland correctional officers is around 10% and the state has pared the number of budgeted positions even as it’s failed to fill them, according to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents state correctional workers along with thousands of other public employees.

A corrections officer checks a cellblock at North Branch Correctional Institution outside Cumberland in 2007.
A corrections officer checks a cellblock at North Branch Correctional Institution outside Cumberland in 2007. (Jed Kirschbaum/Baltimore Sun)

“Staffing levels are so dire across the state,” said AFSCME Council 3 President Patrick Moran, exacerbating fears that incidents similar to the fires set earlier this month at a pretrial detention center in Baltimore could happen elsewhere.

In that Jan. 2 incident, inmates at the Maryland Reception Diagnostic and Classification Center, a pretrial detention center in Baltimore, set several fires, sending at least three inmates and a correctional officer to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries and causing $50,000 in damage.

[More: Md. CO, 3 inmates hospitalized after inmates set multiple fires]

Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services spokesman Mark Vernarelli said in a statement that the fire is still under investigation.

An assistant secretary for the department “spoke to union representatives immediately after the [jail] fire, and at no time did staffing come up as a concern for that particular incident,” Vernarelli said.

The correctional officer was recovering from her wounds in the hospital last week when she was diagnosed with COVID-19, said Stuart Katzenberg, collective bargaining director for AFSCME. Union officials did not know her condition as of Monday. The three inmates have returned to the detention center.

The Department of Corrections has hired 954 correctional officers since January last year — “a staggering number given the pandemic and the nationwide struggles of law enforcement agencies to hire qualified people,” Vernarelli said in a statement.

The department is trying to encourage new hires, he said; salaries for correctional officers have been raised more than 20% since 2019 to more than $46,000 with additional hiring bonuses. DPS has halved the time for an applicant to be hired and holds one-day hiring events in Maryland and other states where candidates can finish a third of the hiring process and receive a conditional offer of employment that day, Vernarelli said.

But Sgt. Elisha Mack, a correctional officer at the pretrial detention center, said conditions leading up to the fires were and continue to be “just not safe.”

She and her colleagues routinely work upward of 16 hours a day, she said. Some detainees have been held at the facility for nearly three years, though it was not built to house inmates for an extended period of time. The jail currently houses around 500 inmates, some of whom are finding ways to thwart prison security systems such as door locks.

The conditions have led to assaults by inmates on officers and each other, Mack said.

“We are not able to secure the inmates behind the doors,” she said. “We are not even able to make sure that their rights are not violated.”

Vernarelli said assaults by inmates have dropped since December 2019; serious inmate-on-inmate assaults are down 72% and serious inmate-on-staff assaults are down 44%.

“The safety of its employees and the incarcerated remains the department’s top priority,” Vernarelli said.

But Moran said that keeping detainees “way too long at this facility” is “damaging to the inmates, it is damaging to the staff that have to oversee them, and it’s compromising the facility.”

And it’s led to frustrations among inmates “because they are not getting programs, they are not able to engage in things that keep them occupied,” he added.

Mack also said the public safety department was not proactive in alerting staff members when they’d come in contact with someone confirmed to have COVID-19.

Worse still, union officials said, the state doesn’t deliver personal protective equipment consistently to detention centers, which Vernarelli said is untrue.

“Officers do have adequate PPE, and the department continues to mandate its use,” the spokesman said.

The department has distributed 3.4 million pieces of personal protective equipment since the pandemic, including N95 masks, and Public Safety and Correctional Services Secretary Robert Green “personally conducts daily COVID-19 PPE supply reviews,” Vernarelli said.

Marci Tarrant Johnson, president of the AFSCME Local 423, which represents public defenders, said COVID-19 tests are not readily available among those incarcerated and those experiencing coronavirus symptoms are required to share cells.

“Anecdotally, our clients are not being offered boosters,” Johnson said.

She said it’s unclear how many incarcerated people have received a booster.

Johnson added that the state’s “cover-up” of a vaccine vendor that administered mishandled vaccine doses at prisons and elsewhere in the state further eroded trust in vaccination efforts.

“The recent news that our clients have been [given mishandled] doses is unacceptable already,” she said.

She’s now waiting to learn which inmates being represented by public defenders were given a mishandled and potentially spoiled vaccine.

Department of Health officials said they began notifying patients who may have received a spoiled vaccine at the end of December.

©2022 Baltimore Sun.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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