JESSUP — The union that represents more than 7,000 correctional officers in Maryland is accusing Gov. Larry Hogan of dragging his feet when it comes to hiring replacement officers to work in more than two dozen prisons around the state.
The delays in hiring and smaller than normal classes have led to a deficit of nearly 1,000 corrections officer positions around the state. Union officials said the shortage is making prisons less safe and could result in the death of an inmate or correctional officer.
“(The governor) was supposed to be the business expert,” said Patrick Moran, president of AFSCME Council 3, the largest state employee union in the state.” The man that could run everything. How can you run the prisons with 1,000 people less?
But a spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services said statistics used by the union are outdated and represent the total number of vacancies with the 11,000 employee department that includes correctional officers.
Gary W. McLhinney, director of the department’s Office of Professional Standards, said the actual number of vacant correctional officer positions is “under 600” and said the figure cited by the is old and includes other vacant positions within the 11,000 employee agency.
“That includes cooks and maintenance people and nurses and other positions, ” McLhinney said, adding that he could not confirm specific shortages at each correctional facility due to security concerns.
“We have some bad people in these places,” McLhinney said.
Moran and other union officials said the 1,000 vacant correctional officer positions was highlighted by Corrections Secretary Stephen T. Moyer in April during a presentation before the Maryland Police and Corrections Training Commission.
McLhinney said the agency is actively trying to hire and expanding its efforts but said that new standards put in place by the legislature, which the agency supports, has resulted in the rejection of a large number of actions. In the last 18 months, the agency has polygraphed 4,200 applicants but could only hire 395. In some cases, applicants were rejected for gang affiliations or other concerns.
“We’re not going to short cut the process,” McLhinney said. “It’s not safe for our employees.”
The changes in the screening and hiring process came after nearly four dozen people, correctional officers and inmates in the Baltimore City Detention Center were federally indicted in connection with gang activity involving the Black Guerrilla Family.
In addition to walk-in pre-screening events, McLhinney said, the state has hired a recruiter to reach out to members of the military returning from duty overseas. Furthermore, the agency has taken to hiring qualified candidates immediately and moving them into non-custodial roles while they await the start of training classes.
In the past, the agency would lose qualified candidates who were not hired for two and sometimes three months while they awaited the start of a training class.
“We learned that from police departments,’ McLhinney said. “Once we get someone that’s qualified. We don’t want to let them go.”
Union leaders acknowledged that the state has taken steps to hire new officers, including offering a walk-in pre-screening event scheduled for Tuesday and hiring three new recruiters. An academy class for 15 new officers starts in July.
“We know the department is hiring,” Moran said. “We know that, we’re aware of it. They’re just doing a very bad job at hiring officers.”
Sgt. Chris Duffy, a correctional officer at the Maryland Correctional Institution in Hagerstown and president of the AFSCME chapter there, said a typical class of recruits for his facility alone would total nearly two dozen.
Of the class scheduled for this summer, only two are expected to be assigned to the facility in Hagerstown, according to union officials. Those same officials said the facility is understaffed by 135 officers.
Moran blamed the hiring delays on Hogan’s desire to rein in government spending and not be seen as increasing the size of government.
“There is no more budget crunch,” Moran said. ” There is almost a $500 million surplus. The budget crunch is no longer an excuse, it’s no longer valid. It’s just an unwillingness to hire more people because they you’re painted with growing government. And he’s going to avoid growing government at the cost of someone’s life at the end of the day. That’s what’s going to happen here whether it’s an inmate or heaven forbid it’s one of the people that serve the state of Maryland.”
“The fact of the matter is, they’re being penny-wise and pound-foolish at the end of the day here,” Moran said.
But McLhiney said the union characterization is misleading and inaccurate.
“This is not a budget issue,” McLhinney said. “The assertion that the governor is not hiring people in order to reduce the size of government is totally false and has no merit. The money is in the budget and we are hiring people.”