Longtime employees of City Jail lose jobs after state moves in 'Bright' future promised by Robinson turns dim


In the days before the state took control of the Baltimore City Jail, state public safety chief Bishop L. Robinson personally assured employees there that their future was "very bright." Nelson Williams III, Shrene Burnett and Laverne Engram learned otherwise.

Within two weeks of the July 1 transfer of the jail to Mr. Robinson's agency, all three were summarily fired, told to pack up their belongings and were escorted out of the building on the very same day. The employees -- who held clerical or supervisory jobs -- said they were given no reason for the termination, just two weeks' notice.

Mr. Williams and Ms. Burnett, jail employees for 18 and 11 years respectively, said that they were let go despite unblemished work records, including past commendations for a job well done or perfect attendance. Ms. Engram, a 3 1/2 -year employee, said she believed that she was let go because a supervisor did not like her.

"These employees are not being given a fair shot to show they can perform their duties," said Rudy Porter-Lauer, a representative from the Maryland Correctional Union. "The administration has gone back on its word."

The future for jail employees appears to be less than bright, added Mr. Porter-Lauer.

LaMont Flanagan, the acting head of the new Division of Pretrial and Detention Services, which oversees the jail, did not return 22TC telephone call requesting comment yesterday.

The three cases cited by the Maryland Correctional Union are among a handful so far that have come to the group's attention since the state assumed control of the jail, which is now called the Baltimore City Detention Center. The union fears that state officials are using the six-month, July-to-January probationary period to get rid of people, and not, as was intended, to give jail workers a chance to prove themselves to their new bosses.

He cited as an example Ms. Burnett, an office supervisor-secretary who received her termination letter July 3 from personnel manager Nancy McLaughlin. "You can't tell me in a three-day period that they could determine she couldn't do the job," said Mr. Porter-Lauer.

Ms. Burnett, 41, and her co-workers, Mr. Williams, 43, and Ms. Engram, 31, each passed the state employee test that they were required to take. They also met the other criteria outlined by Mr. Robinson for the jail's 800-plus workers to keep their jobs -- a clean drug test, no prior criminal convictions and a good work record.

Of the three, only Mr. Williams was required to take a drug test because his job in the finance office was designated a "sensitive" one. Mr. Williams said he passed the drug test.

Jail employees with less experience are now filling the jobs of Mr. Williams, Ms. Burnett, and Ms. Engram, Mr. Porter-Lauer said. Most disturbing is the fact that none was given a reason for the termination.

Citing state personnel regulations, Mr. Porter-Lauer said the workers were entitled to an explanation if one exists. If the state was abolishing those jobs or reducing its staff at the Detention Center, the employees should have been told before the state takeover, he said.

Ms. Burnett, who earned about $26,000 annually, said she asked why she was being let go and the new Detention Center warden, Bernard Smith, candidly told her he did not know. During her years at the jail, Ms. Burnett said she received job performance ratings that were "satisfactory and above." Ms. Burnett, who lives in the 1000 block of North Wolfe Street, said that she has filed for unemployment and appealed her dismissal.

Mr. Williams, who earned $22,000 a year and worked as a cashier, said that he lives with his two elderly parents in the 5500 block of Belle Avenue. He said he pays the mortgage. He said that he received certificates of appreciation in 1983, 1985 and 1989.

Ms. Engram, a single mother of two sons, said she believed that she lost her job because she successfully won grievances against Ms. McLaughlin, the jail's personnel manager. She said she had been living with an aunt and was getting ready to find a place of her own.

"This is just a big setback for me," she said.

Mr. Porter-Lauer said that he had trouble reaching state officials to discuss the issues. He said it will take at least six to eight weeks before a state hearing is set in the cases and probably another two to three months before a decision is rendered.

Meanwhile, Shrene Burnett wonders how she will pay her bills.

"My children are grown, thank God," said Ms. Burnett, who says she took six days of sick leave in 11 years of service. "There is a possibility I could lose my house."

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