HAGERSTOWN — HAGERSTOWN -- Gov. Martin O'Malley said yesterday that state corrections officers were put at risk under his predecessor as money was diverted from full staffing and safety measures to pay for rehabilitation and training programs for inmates, and he vowed that he would fully fund both programs.
"For starters, or should I say, for restarters, we need to get away from the zero-sum game where we shortchange safety to fund treatment," O'Malley said, referring to Project Restart, an initiative of former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. that critics say was funded at the expense of full staffing at corrections institutions.
O'Malley, visiting a Western Maryland prison with his nominee for public safety and corrections secretary, Gary D. Maynard, reassured correction officers that his administration will not shortchange their safety in its efforts to boost treatment for inmates.
The governor did not refer to his Republican predecessor by name, but O'Malley's statements represent his most recent pointed critique of Ehrlich's management.
Mary Ann Saar, who was the secretary of Public Safety and Correctional Services under Ehrlich, said O'Malley's suggestion that money was diverted from efforts to keep corrections officers safe into inmate treatment is false. She said Ehrlich was committed to treatment and tried repeatedly to expand programs behind prison walls, only to see the legislature cut the budget and place restrictions on the programs.
"We did a lot," Saar said. "There were a lot of agendas being played out there, but I don't know how anybody complained about raises, new equipment, new vehicles, better training, which we did. What's to complain about?"
O'Malley, a Democrat, inherits a department shocked by the killings of two corrections officers last year. He said his purpose in visiting the Maryland Correctional Training Center yesterday was to reassure staff members that their concerns will be listened to. He included money in his proposed budget for 155 new corrections officers statewide, as well as funding for a new 192-cell housing unit at the Hagerstown prison.
The governor said he would also tackle the staffing shortage by working to make sure salaries are competitive with those of other states and local governments.
"So many officers are worn down by essentially mandated overtime that comes with staffing shortages," O'Malley said. "That's not good for the officers, that's not good for public safety, and that's not good for the inmates."
Several elected officials who represent the area - most of them Republicans - attended O'Malley's meetings with corrections officers and said that the system problems under previous administrations were real.
Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr., a Western Maryland Republican, said it was tough to get answers out of Saar when she ran the department. Myers said he met for two hours with Maynard and came away with a sense that Maynard can turn the system around. Maynard has already headed troubled corrections systems in South Carolina and Iowa, and held top posts in Oklahoma and Arkansas.
"He's the kind of person who likes to say: I was the one who was in Oklahoma and Iowa and I made a difference," Myers said.
Maynard said he believes that the state's corrections system has a solid foundation but that changes need to be made to re-establish a safe environment for corrections officers and the public. He said he would like to modernize some facilities, reclassify some inmates to move them to more secure prisons and change the command structure.
"We've had some horrible incidents in the last couple of years that got morale down," he said. "It needs to be a number of things at once that will restore people's confidence in the system."
The two killings of correctional officers by inmates last year were the first slayings of on-duty officers since 1984, and critics saw them as emblematic of an out-of-control system.
During the past few years, inmate violence has spiked along with gang activity behind bars. Correctional officers complained of understaffing and unsafe conditions. Violence increased as veteran wardens and staff left or were forced out of their jobs.
Justice Maryland Executive Director Kimberly Haven said that she is thrilled by O'Malley's attention to problems in the prison and by his commitment to fund both treatment and efforts to improve safety.
Haven said her group, which works to strengthen Maryland's criminal justice system, has seen deteriorating conditions in the prisons that endanger corrections officers and inmates alike.
"I wasn't getting letters saying, 'I'm innocent, get me out of here,'" Haven said. "I was getting letters saying, 'I'm afraid. Help me.'"
Not everyone agrees with O'Malley's approach. Jason Ziedenberg, the executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, a Washington think tank advocating alternatives to incarceration, said O'Malley should take advantage of declines in Maryland's prison population to start shutting down prisons and investing in treatment for drug offenders.
"There is all sorts of research that says the most cost-effective intervention in public safety for drug-addicted people is community-based drug treatment," Ziedenberg said.
But O'Malley's approach is winning support among legislators who represent Western Maryland, which houses a large percentage of the state's prisoners.
"I endorse everything he said today, from adding new officers, to capital investments, commitment at the secretary level and a look at new policies," said Republican Del. Christopher B. Shank, the House minority whip from Washington County.
Del. Robert A. McKee, a Washington County Republican, said talking to corrections officers was a good first step for O'Malley. McKee and others who sat in on the closed-door meeting said the officers were concerned about the need for stronger safety measures and about the personal toll understaffing has taken.
Larry D. Kump, president of the Maryland Classified Employees Association chapter that represents noncorrectional officers at Hagerstown, said Maynard stayed after O'Malley left and met with him and others for two hours.
"He said [he] learned that the best way to get things done is to reach out to the people who work for you and listen to what they have to say," Kump said. "We were just totally walking on air because it's been a long time since we have perceived anybody reaching out like that."