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5 COs injured in assault at Md. prison; union blames understaffing

COs were assaulted when they responded to a gang-related altercation between prisoners that occurred in an open area inside the facility


This is the staff and visitor entrance to the Eastern Correctional Institution (ECI) Annex. A group of prisoners at the prison assaulted and injured five correctional officers last week. (Photo Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Sun)

Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun

By Lea Skene
Baltimore Sun

WESTOVER, Md. - After a group of prisoners at Eastern Correctional Institution in Westover assaulted and injured five correctional officers last week, the union representing Maryland prison employees reiterated longstanding allegations of dangerous working conditions stemming from a deepening manpower shortage inside the facilities.

Four of the injured officers were hospitalized for treatment; they all received non-life-threatening injuries and have since been released from the hospital, said Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

“The Department plans to aggressively seek criminal charges against the perpetrators,” he said in a statement. “The investigation is ongoing.”

The assault occurred last Wednesday evening at Maryland’s largest state prison, a medium-security facility on the lower Eastern Shore.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents state correctional workers along with thousands of other public employees, said the incident underscores the risks of working in correctional settings, especially amid staffing shortages.

AFSCME Council 3 President Patrick Moran said he recently spoke with some of the injured officers. He said they were assaulted when they responded to a gang-related altercation between prisoners that occurred in an open area inside the facility. Their injuries included bruises, cuts, scrapes and a broken nose, Moran said.

“First and foremost, we want to acknowledge these people went into a very dangerous situation,” he said. “That’s unfortunately the part of the job that worries us the most — that the department has not done their job in terms of hiring and staffing these facilities. This is all a result of an administration that has shown no concern for hiring and retaining people.”

He said recent pay raises for state employees are not keeping up with inflation, and Maryland prison guards can often make more money working in county jails or neighboring states.

However, Vernarelli said the compound where the assault occurred was fully staffed at the time. He did not immediately respond to questions about whether any of the injured officers were working overtime.

“Staffing was not an issue in this incident,” he said, adding that the facility remained secure and there was never a threat to the public.

Corrections officials have emphasized their ongoing focus on recruitment even as the pandemic caused a shortage of workers in many fields, including law enforcement and corrections.

Other instances of violence inside Maryland correctional facilities have also made headlines in recent months, including a fight in July at the Maryland Correctional Institution in Jessup that left five prisoners injured, including with puncture wounds. They were hospitalized for treatment; officials said no officers were injured.

In January, detainees set several fires inside the Baltimore pretrial detention center, which is also run by the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. Four people were hospitalized, including one correctional officer, and 28 people were treated on the scene for smoke inhalation.