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Md. correctional officers say staffing shortage putting them at risk

Maryland correctional facilities are sorely understaffed, according to state legislative analysts and the correctional officers’ union. (Andre Chung/For The Washington Post)

With their union contract set to expire later this year, Maryland state correctional officers are making a case for higher pay, saying an increase in salaries would help retain stressed employees, attract new recruits and improve safety amid a major staffing shortage.

AFSCME Maryland, the workers union which represents the officers, met with department officials this week to lay out the employees’ concerns ahead of the contract negotiations, which are set to begin in September.

Sgt. Kyle Schanholtz, a union steward who works at the Roxbury Correctional Institution in Hagerstown, said maintaining order at the state’s lockup facilities has become increasingly challenging with a personnel shortage and officers feeling overworked, particularly from overtime.

“We’re just surviving, not functioning in a proper manner,” he said. “We’re worried one of us will have to lose our lives before the state starts managing the way it’s supposed to.”

The state's legislative analysts said in their budget report this year that the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services is facing a "staffing crisis," with 981 vacancies, or about 14 percent of the front-line staff. They added that the shortage was contributing to "record high levels of overtime spending and increasing safety concerns."

The department launched a hiring initiative last year that added three recruiters, doubled the number of recruiting events throughout the state and included a new effort to draw more women into the correctional workforce.

But Gary McLhinney, the director of professional standards for Public Safety and Correctional Services, said the agency is struggling to identify promising prospects, particularly since the state began a crackdown on corruption in its prison system.

“We’re not compromising our standards, because a corrupt correctional officer is worse than no correctional officer at all,” he said.

Since 2016, more than 3,600 people began the application process to become correctional officers, but only 41 percent made it through the initial review and the department hired 117 of those individuals.

Many of those who failed to make the cut were disqualified because of drug history, falsifying applications, giving improper information for their background checks or failing the polygraph test.

McLhinney does not dispute that vacancies are a problem for the department but said the budget report makes the shortage seem worse than it is. He noted that the state’s prison population has declined nearly 7 percent since 2014 and fewer officers are needed as a result.

“We’ve been able to make significant changes in our facilities and how we operate them,” he said.

Union officials say an across-the-board pay increase would help attract quality recruits and keep existing employees from leaving. AFSCME has not decided on a number yet, but asked for a $1,500 flat hike for all officers last year during initial discussions.

Salaries for state correctional officers start at $38,258 and reach to more than $54,100 for the most experienced personnel.

Assaults on officers in Maryland prisons more than doubled in 2016 compared with the previous year, rising to 2.07 assaults per 100 inmates.

McLhinney contends that the increase is largely due to changes in reporting standards that require documentation of violations as minor as throwing a plastic identification card at staff. He said the department is most concerned about assaults with weapons, of which there were 17 incidents last year, compared with 42 in 2014.

The department expects the numbers to continue dropping since it has begun using portable devices that help detect weapons and contraband, McLhinney said.

Schanholtz said officers still feel at risk, with staffing shortages forcing them to work extra hours and testing their ability to maintain order as they become fatigued.

Overtime spending for correctional officers has increased nearly 66 percent, to $70.2 million, since 2013, according to the budget report.

The jump tracked with a sharp rise in vacancies that started in 2014, but McLhinney has challenged the notion of a direct correlation. He noted that the department relaxed its policy on sick leave that year, saying the change meant staff more frequently worked extra hours to cover for employees taking unscheduled time off.

Schanholtz says anywhere from 15 to 35 officers generally work overtime on a given shift, with only five staff members out sick.

“It’s a hard and dangerous environment,” Schanholtz said. “And when you’re forced to stay in it longer, it takes a mental toll.”