The union that represents Maryland correctional officers demanded Thursday that Gov. Larry Hogan (R) increase efforts to fill staff vacancies at state prisons, saying the facilities are short about 1,000 employees.
Standing with about two dozen officers outside the Dorsey Run Correctional Facility in Jessup, Md., AFSCME Maryland Council 3 President Patrick Moran said the shortage puts guards and inmates at risk.
“The [inmates] have a lot of time on their hands, and they notice things,” Moran said. “They’re looking for ways to get over on people, and they’re getting over on our folks. That’s dangerous.”
Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services officials said the state currently has about 600 vacancies for correctional officers, and 1,000 vacancies department-wide.
Gary McLhinney, the agency’s director of professional standards, said the problem stems in part from stricter hiring procedures and a crackdown on corrupt employees after a 2013 scandal at the state-run Baltimore City Detention Center, where a handful of guards took part in drug-trafficking and money-laundering operations from within the facility.
Since Hogan took office in 2015, the state has seen an increase in the number of departures among its correctional officers, officials said. Forty-four were fired or resigned while facing termination last year, compared with 27 in 2014.
State officials said the department has launched several hiring initiatives this year, adding three recruiting specialists, holding recruiting events throughout the state and — starting next week — offering walk-in eligibility testing at its human-resources center in Baltimore.
“We’re working like crazy and aggressively trying to hire, but we’re not going to hire people who can’t pass a polygraph test, a background check or who have criminal records,” McLhinney said. “We won’t hire anyone who is going to compromise the safety of our correctional officers or the individuals we’re responsible for.”
McLhinney said the department tested 4,276 applicants for corrections jobs during the past 18 months and hired just 396 individuals — a rate of about 9 percent.
As a result, the state is holding training academy courses less frequently. McLhinney said the state often hires accepted applicants to work other jobs in the department while it finds enough recruits to fill a new class.
“When you get a quality candidate, you don’t want to let them go,” he said. “Someone else will snatch them up.”
Union officials say the state needs to ramp up its recruiting efforts.
“We know the department is hiring. They’re just doing a very bad job,” Moran said. “There’s no way it’s because they’re making sure everyone is on the straight and narrow. They’re just not filling the jobs they need to fill at the pace they need to fill them. Maybe they need to look at compensation to attract a broader pool of applicants.”
The starting salary for a Maryland correctional officer is about $38,000.
McLhinney said that the department is considering a “cadet program” that would allow the state to hire young adults for temporary corrections jobs until they are 21, the age at which they are allowed to oversee inmates. Their interim duties could include mail sorting, food service and data entry.
“The idea is to get them into the system, with a paycheck and health-care benefits,” said McLhinney, who joined the Baltimore Police Department as a cadet himself at age 19. “We’ve seen it work well for law enforcement.”
Michael McCartin, an officer at the Patuxent Institution in Jessup, said that the shortages at the facility require each guard to do the work of up to four people.
“We’re about one-fourth of what we had officer-wise when I started 18 years ago,” McCartin said. Back then, he added, “when you got assaulted, you had a sergeant and 10 officers responding. Now you have a sergeant and two officers.”
McLhinney said prisons have used overtime to compensate for the lack of employees.
“We don’t go short,” he said. “We pay overtime to make sure every single mandatory position is covered every single day.”
But some correctional officers say the additional hours have taken a toll on them, cutting into their family lives and leaving them exhausted.
“You end up having to overlook stuff because you’re tired,” said Smith Kulu, who works at Dorsey Run. “Sometimes I have to pick up my kid from school, but I’m stuck. We have a job to do, and we get extra money for the work, but we have to take care of our families.”