August 15, 2017 at 8:12 PM
MARYLAND'S STATE corrections system is looking for a few hundred good prison guards. The fact that it can't find them is a problem that Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and lawmakers in Annapolis need to address sooner rather than later.
In 2009, 752 guards were hired from an applicant pool of more than 7,700 candidates. Last year, only 63 applicants made the cut from a drastically diminished pool of just 2,400 applicants. In most of the about 30 corrections facilities around the state, scores of officers' jobs are unfilled.
The state has scrambled to plug the gap by offering, and sometimes demanding, overtime, at a cost of tens of millions of dollars annually. In some cases, guards are working week-long double shifts, meaning 80-hour weeks. The job is grueling enough for officers who are well rested and alert; it is dangerous for those who aren't.
The shrunken applicant pool and paltry harvest of successful hires are a function of several factors, including Maryland's low unemployment rate, the diminished status of law enforcement careers and, critically, the requirement since 2015 that all prison-guard candidates undergo polygraphs. That polygraph requirement, enacted by the General Assembly in response to a scandal involving guards having sex with and supplying contraband to inmates at the Baltimore City Detention Center, has depressed application numbers, while at the same time has yielded information during the tests that disqualifies many applicants.
About 600 guards' jobs are unfilled, among the roughly 1,000 vacancies overall in the state corrections department. Alarmed that they cannot fill enough jobs to guard even a prison population that has shrunk by 10 percent so far this decade, corrections officials are taking steps to improve recruitment.
The steps include offering walk-in testing in communities around the state, developing a "cadet" program to hire and develop teenagers who can become guards once they turn 21, and offering $500 "finder's fees" to current employees who recruit successful applicants. Discarded is a policy that barred most candidates who had smoked marijuana, even in college; now, three years without toking up is enough to pass muster.
Those are helpful moves, but they're not enough. In advance of negotiations to replace a labor contract due for renegotiation shortly, the union representing corrections officers has announced it wants an across-the-board pay increase. The amount will be subject to bargaining, but the need is clear enough.
State prison guard salaries now start at about $38,000, with full retirement benefits after 20 years. That was enough to attract a healthy applicant pool until a few years ago; these days it's inadequate.
The union has been irresponsible by citing short-staffing and excessive overtime hours as excuses for corruption scandals involving corrections officers. But it is correct that safety at Maryland prisons is impaired without an adequate number of guards. Mr. Hogan will need to step up.
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