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Crime

Five correctional officers injured in assault at Eastern Correctional Institution; union blames understaffing

After a group of prisoners at Eastern Correctional Institution in Somerset County assaulted and injured five correctional officers last week, the union representing Maryland prison employees reiterated longstanding grievances about dangerous working conditions stemming from a deepening manpower shortage inside the facilities.

Four of the injured officers were hospitalized for treatment; they all received non-life-threatening injuries and have since been released from the hospital, said Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

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“The Department plans to aggressively seek criminal charges against the perpetrators,” he said in a statement. “The investigation is ongoing.”

The assault occurred last Wednesday evening at Maryland’s largest state prison, a medium-security facility in Westover on the lower Eastern Shore.

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The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents state correctional workers along with thousands of other public employees, said the incident underscores the risks of working in correctional settings, especially amid staffing shortages.

AFSCME Council 3 President Patrick Moran said he recently spoke with some of the injured officers. He said they were assaulted when they responded to a gang-related altercation between prisoners that occurred in an open area inside the facility. Their injuries included bruises, cuts, scrapes and a broken nose, Moran said.

“First and foremost, we want to acknowledge these people went into a very dangerous situation,” he said. “That’s unfortunately the part of the job that worries us the most — that the department has not done their job in terms of hiring and staffing these facilities. This is all a result of an administration that has shown no concern for hiring and retaining people.”

Moran said recent pay raises for state employees are not keeping up with inflation, and Maryland prison guards can often make more money working in county jails or neighboring states. He said using overtime to fill staffing vacancies can exacerbate dangerous working conditions because officers are not getting adequate rest.

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Overall, the department had a vacancy rate of about 14% as of January.

However, Vernarelli said, the compound where the assault occurred was fully staffed at the time. He said one of the injured officers was working voluntary overtime.

“Staffing was not an issue in this incident,” he said, adding that the facility remained secure and there was never a threat to the public.

Corrections officials have emphasized their ongoing focus on recruitment even as the pandemic caused a shortage of workers in many fields, including law enforcement and corrections.

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On Tuesday morning, less than a week after the assault at Eastern Correctional, another incident occurred at Roxbury Correctional Institution in Hagerstown. Vernarelli said one officer was injured in an assault. He said officials would pursue criminal charges against the suspect and the facility was locked down while detectives started their investigation.

Other instances of violence inside Maryland correctional facilities have made headlines in recent months, including a fight in July at the Maryland Correctional Institution in Jessup that left five prisoners injured, including with puncture wounds. They were hospitalized for treatment; officials said no officers were injured.

In January, detainees set several fires inside the Baltimore pretrial detention center, which also is run by the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. Four people were hospitalized, including one correctional officer, and 28 people were treated on the scene for smoke inhalation.


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