Maryland prison chief defends efforts to reduce overtime costs

Maryland lawmakers are concerned about the cost of overtime at the state's prisons due to a lack of staffing. Last year, the state paid $129 million in overtime to correctional officers.

Maryland’s top public safety official defended his efforts Friday to hire and retain correctional officers and reduce the high cost of overtime in state prisons.

Robert L. Green, the secretary of the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said he “fully accepts the urgency” of the overtime and staffing problems in the prisons.


“Filling every single vacant position is my No. 1 priority,” he told lawmakers.

The Baltimore Sun reported earlier this month that the state has a shortage of about 1,000 correctional officers, leading to officers being required to work overtime.


Last year, the state paid $129 million in overtime to correctional officers — a number that’s projected to rise to $150 million next year.

Those numbers drew the attention of Del. Maggie McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the appropriations committee in the House of Delegates. Her committee pressed Green for answers during a hearing.

“We need to figure this out this year. I think $129 million in overtime is not acceptable and looking toward $150 million is even worse,” McIntosh said. “We’re going to kind of bear down this year on this problem.”

Green, who became secretary last May, laid out a series of hiring and retention programs he’s initiated, including streamlining the hiring process from 10 months to five months, holding hiring events that allow applicants to complete multiple steps in the process in one day, sending recruiters to more community events, offering incentives for retirement-eligible officers to keep working, offering bonuses and increasing pay.

In 2019, the state hired more than 600 correctional officers, with another 50 hired this month, Green said. He said he continues to close a gap between the number of officers being hired and the number of officers who are retiring or quitting.

“I do not claim the problem has been conquered,” he said.

Representatives from the union that represents correctional officers said the state could do more to fix the problem. Namely, the state should raise officer salaries even higher, said Sue Esty, a senior advisor for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Esty said state correctional officers can be lured away to jobs in county jails, which generally pay about $10,000 more per year.


Correctional officers traveled to Annapolis to explain the strain of being forced to work overtime.

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Farouqah Kukoyi, for example, told lawmakers she took an 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift so she could see keep an eye on her teenage daughter before and after school. But when Kukoyi is drafted to stay on for another shift after 7 a.m., she can’t see her daughter and worries for her safety.

“Overtime is affecting everybody personally,” she said.

Prisoners also are hurt by the lack of staffing, said Julie Magers of the Maryland Prisoners Rights Coalition. If there aren’t enough correctional officers, then prisoners can miss classes, substance abuse treatment, medical appointments and other programs — some of which they must complete before being released, she said.

Lack of staff also can lead to more assaults and a slower response to incidents.

“That population needs to be protected, as well as the staff,” she said.


McIntosh said she planned to call Green and his top staff back to Annapolis at least once a month during the remainder of the 90-day General Assembly session, so they can continue to answer questions about their recruitment and retention efforts.

“I don’t look at this as your problem. I look at this as our problem…," she said. "We want to help find a solution.”