The union that represents employees at Maryland prisons charged Thursday that the state has a severe shortage of correctional officers, leading to dangerous conditions in the facilities.
Several dozen members and officials of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees gathered outside the Dorsey Run Correctional Facility in Jessup for a news conference at which they blamed Gov. Larry Hogan for what they called a hazardous level of understaffing.
Sgt. Christopher Duffy, a correctional officer at the state correctional training facility in Hagerstown, said Public Safety Secretary Stephen Moyer told him in April that the department had 1,000 fewer correctional officers than it needs.
Union officials said chronic understaffing and compulsory overtime were leaving correctional officers fatigued, stressed and short of time with their families.
Matthew A. Clark, a spokesman for Hogan, referred questions to the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.
Gary W. McLhinney, the department's director of professional standards, said the figure of 1,000 vacancies refers to the total number of open positions in the agency and not just correctional officers. He said there were 599 correctional officer vacancies as of Monday.
McLhinney said that filling those positions is a top priority for Hogan and Moyer but that neither will compromise on the new, higher qualifications set for the correctional officers the department hires.
"Hiring unqualified candidates is dangerous to both our employees and inmates," McLhinney said.
Lax hiring standards were singled out as a main reason for the Black Guerrilla Family scandal that enveloped the department-run Baltimore City Detention Center in 2013. In that case, two dozen correctional officers were convicted of smuggling in contraband for members of the gang.
McLhinney said the biggest obstacles to hiring correctional officers are the polygraph tests required by the General Assembly since October and the more extensive background checks the department requires for applicants. He said that under Hogan, the department has tested 4,276 applicants and hired 395.
Nevertheless, AFSCME officials and members blamed the governor for its vacancies, saying the state has lost more than 400 correctional officers since the governor took office in January 2015 — 170 this year alone.
"Since this administration came to power, the whole thing is a shambles," said Sgt. Patrick Okafor, a veteran correctional officer at Dorsey Run and president of his AFSCME local. "That's when the whole thing started changing."
Okafor said that when the department is short of correctional officers on a shift, it demands that those on the job work compulsory overtime, including weeks of "40 plus 40" hours.
"You can't be 100 percent working" under such conditions, he said.
McLhinney said the department is "fully staffing our facilities on a daily basis and safety is not compromised."
The department does not have a rule setting a maximum number of hours a correctional officer can work in a single week, and McLhinney said the union had rejected past efforts to set one. He said the administration plans to revisit the issue when the current labor contract expires in 2018.
McLhinney said 90 percent of the department's overtime is worked voluntarily and that full double shifts are rare now that the department has changed its scheduling system. He said a current estimate of overtime spending is unavailable.
The department recently held three hiring events around the state attended by more than 500 candidates, McLhinney said. The department also announced a "just walk in" program, in which applicants can visit its Reisterstown Road Plaza offices without an appointment starting Tuesday and take a test for correctional officer jobs.
Lawmakers who represent areas with correctional facilities said the problem of prison staff shortages has been going on long before Hogan took office.
Sen. James E. "Ed" DeGrange Sr., an Anne Arundel County Democrat who represents the Jessup area, said he's seen such disagreements between AFSCME and the department before.
"The union typically has not agreed with their staffing analysis," he said. "It's hard to say who's exactly right."
DeGrange, who chairs the Senate subcommittee that oversees the prison budget, said the allegations are "something we'll certainly look at as we move forward with the next budget."
He said his panel typically examines the use of overtime for correctional officers, something he said has been at "higher levels than certainly you'd like to see."
"To work two shifts in a day is a problem because you get tired and you always have to be on guard and you've got to be at your best," DeGrange said. "If you're working a second shift, you're not going to be as fresh as you were the first shift of the day."
Del. Brett Wilson, a Republican whose district includes Hagerstown-area prisons and their many correctional officers, said it's "vital that we maintain adequate staffing in all correctional facilities."
"It's a matter of making the prison work, so to speak," he said.
But Wilson, a Washington County prosecutor, said there have been "ebbs and flows" in prison staffing over the past 20 years.
"I'm certainly not going to lay it at the feet of the governor in any way," he said.