Hogan defends record on prison system, seeking to counter 'misinformation'

Gov. Larry Hogan, seeking to counter what he called “misinformation,” has sent a letter to thousands of Maryland correctional officers defending his record on managing the state prison system.

Officials said the three-page letter was either read aloud by supervisors or given to the state’s more than 4,700 correctional officers at roll call last week. Amid complaints of understaffing and hazardous conditions, Hogan wrote that his aim was to “set the record straight.”

“Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation being spread about our efforts,” the Republican governor wrote. He went on to mount a detailed defense of his administration’s efforts to alleviate an acknowledged problem in hiring enough correctional officers to staff all its duty posts without requiring overtime.

There were 892 open correctional officer positions in the system in June, for a 15.8 percent vacancy rate, according to the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. That was up from 11 percent in June 2016.

Hogan spokeswoman Amelia Chasse said the letter was the first Hogan had written directly to the state’s correctional officers. She said she didn’t know whether previous governors had done so.

Hogan has come under fire in recent years from Democratic lawmakers and the union that represents state correctional officers over persistently high vacancy rates in state prisons, a condition that has required the state to pay overtime, and led to complaints that prison employees are left exhausted and feeling unsafe.

Hogan disputed much of the criticism.

”Our administration has made recruiting and hiring qualified candidates to fill critical positions in the public safety sector, including correctional officers a priority,” the governor wrote. But he conceded that there is “always room for improvement,” and said he has instructed the public safety department to “ensure that this process is conducted as efficiently as possible, with no unnecessary red tape.”

Hogan’s letter comes less than four months before the November election. He is trying to become the first Republican governor in more than 60 years to win a second term in Maryland.

Democratic challenger Ben Jealous this week criticized Hogan’s management of the prison system.

“The number of unfilled correctional officer positions in our state prisons have tripled under Larry Hogan, resulting in greater assaults on staff and other inmates,” Jealous said in a statement. “Instead of telling correctional leaders to ‘find a way to fix it’ themselves, we need a governor who will roll up his sleeves and fill the vacant positions immediately.”

The phrase “find a way to fix it” stems from an encounter last month at the annual Tawes crab feast in Crisfield. Supporters of correctional officers complained to Hogan about understaffing at Eastern Correctional Institution in Somerset County, where the vacancy rate is 17 percent.

In a follow-up later, four members of the ECI Support Group said Hogan responded to their complaints about delays in the hiring process by saying “find a way to fix it.”

“He was just very rude to us,” said Kerry Carr, the fiancee of a correctional officer and one of the signers of the letter. “We ruffled some feathers.”

Carr said supporters raised correctional officer safety at a time when there are nearly 100 vacancies at the prison.

“They’re exhausted, they’re tired, there’s mandatory drafting [for overtime],” she said. “They work 16-hour shifts.”

Chasse described the encounter differently.

“It was a frank discussion,” she said. Chasse said the governor told group members that his administration would be happy to hear their ideas for dealing with vacancies.

Administration officials agree they face a challenge in filling positions when unemployment is low and competing employers pay more or have less stringent requirements — or both.

Gary W. McLhinney, the department’s new acting human resources chief, said his mission is to find solutions to the vacancy problems.

“In the past year, we’ve lost more than we’ve hired,” he said. “That’s been consistent for probably the past four, five years.”

It’s not just a matter of retirements outpacing recruiting. McLhinney said more than 400 correctional officers have been arrested in the past three years as state and federal authorities have cracked down on the smuggling of contraband and other corruption in the system.

The scandal at the old Baltimore City Detention Center in 2013, in which crooked guards helped gangs virtually take over control of the jail, prompted the General Assembly to require polygraph tests for job applicants.

Critics of the department, including the group that confronted the governor, say the way the agency uses the polygraph tests hinders hiring. They say the testing takes too long, is mentally and physically exhausting and screens out more applicants than necessary.

Hogan disputed those contentions in his letter.

“Some people want you to believe that the [department] is needlessly polygraphing correctional officer candidates and overcomplicating the application process,” he wrote. “This is simply not true.”

He said “robust background checks” are needed to screen out corrupt applicants who would make conditions more dangerous for their fellow correctional officers.

The critics suggested in their letter that the polygraph process is screening out 98.5 percent of applicants. McLhinney said the figure is “not even close.” He said the pass rate on the polygraph test last year was 63 percent. He said 40 percent of applicants fail a written test similar to a civil service exam.

McLhinney conceded that the number of candidates who make it all the way through the hiring process is “very low.” Department figures for 2017 show that out of 2,333 applicants tested, only 102 were hired.

With the high vacancy rate, the state has budgeted $92 million for correctional officer overtime this year. McLhinney said 90 percent of the overtime is voluntary, but sometimes officers must be drafted.

Patrick Moran, who leads the union that represents state correctional officers, said one way to increase the number of applicants is simple: Pay better salaries.

“They are not getting enough applicants because people are looking at these jobs and they say ‘should I put myself in that situation for such little compensation?’” said Moran, president of AFSCME Council 3. Corrections officers earn from $38,300 to $54,200 — and more, if promoted.

Moran said Hogan “would rather have people work overtime” than hire more staff.

Hogan disputed the claim that the state isn’t hiring officers to save money.

“It is absolutely false to suggest that the department is underfunded,” he wrote. “In fact, the department has funding available to hire nearly 1,000 additional officers — the funding isn’t the issue but attracting qualified candidates is.”

Hogan said his administration has been working hard to address that issue, in part by offering a $5,000 hiring bonus and a $3,000 retention bonus for officers in good standing. But Moran said one-time bonuses are no substitute for higher base pay.

McLhinney said he believes state correctional salaries are competitive, though comparable jobs in jails in Maryland’s larger counties pay more. He said surrounding states and some local governments don’t require polygraph testing for such jobs.

“We need more applicants because the pool needs to be bigger because we’re not going to compromise standards,” he said. “We're not going back to the days of hiring criminals.”

Carr said she’s had productive meetings with members of the Hogan administration since the crab feast. She has agreed to appear in a radio advertisement promoting the department’s recruitment efforts.

But she wasn’t impressed with Hogan’s letter.

“It’s all bogus,” she said. “It seems as if he’s trying to make excuses.”

mdresser@baltsun.com

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