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Maryland’s prisons are facing what union officials and state lawmakers are calling a “staffing crisis," and relying on OT to cover the gaps.

The inmate at the Jessup prison made clear what he planned to do to correctional officer Farouqah Kukoyi.

“I’m gonna mess you up," Kukoyi recalls hearing the man say before he attacked her from behind in Maryland’s severely understaffed prison system. Caught off-guard but lucky, the eight-year veteran officer escaped by rushing into the prison’s control center.

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“I feared for my life,” she recalls of the assault in 2017. “I’ve seen a lot. I’ve been a victim.”

Maryland’s prisons are facing what union officials and state lawmakers are calling a “staffing crisis" ― a shortage of about 1,000 officers, about 20% of positions. And the vacancies are on top of the 929 correctional officer positions Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration has eliminated as the prison population has become smaller, according to legislative analysts.

The vacancy problem has gotten worse each of the last four years, data show.

Officers like Kukoyi say it’s creating unsafe conditions. Too often, they say, tired officers are working 16-hour shifts. As ranks dwindle, there are fewer officers to get each other’s backs in dangerous situations and break up fights between inmates. Sometimes numbers are so low officials are forced to lock down the prisons for safety reasons, denying prisoners access to programs like GED classes.

The problem is laid bare by overtime statistics. In Baltimore, the police department’s $48 million overtime budget is a frequent cause of hand-wringing, news stories and contentious City Council hearings.

But the Maryland prison system’s use of overtime ― many times done by drafting officers to work when they haven’t volunteered ― easily eclipses Baltimore’s total.

In 2013, the prison system paid out $41 million in overtime and counted about 5% of positions as vacant. Last year, overtime had risen to $129 million with 20% of officers’ jobs vacant.

Sen. Cory V. McCray of East Baltimore calls the Hogan administration’s use of overtime in prisons “excessive" and says corrections is “the agency with the worst staffing conditions.” He’s proposing legislation to boost the pay of workers forced to work double shifts.

“It’s unsafe not just for the workers that put their lives on the line every day, but for the educators, nurses and the inmates, too,” the Democrat said. “We have to do better as a state of Maryland. These folks are working 70 or 80 hours. ... It’s unsustainable.”

Hogan says his administration is taking the issue seriously.

“We’re hiring people at a faster rate than ever before,” the Republican governor said Tuesday in announcing his budget. He said the problem with hiring corrections officers has to do more with the nature of the job than a lack of desire to fill the positions. “We still have a vacancy problem as do all states across the United States,” Hogan said.

Unions officials allege that the understaffing is by design and that the governor would prefer to keep costs low by not filling positions. They point to the 27,239 unfilled positions across state government in 2019, a 14% vacancy rate ― roughly double the rate from 2014.

They say vacancies are noticeable in the health department, where assaults on staff at state-run hospitals have more than doubled, and in the parole and probation agency, which supervises about a quarter of all recent homicide suspects in Baltimore.

But no place is facing a bigger shortage than Maryland’s prisons. They currently hold about 19,000 inmates, down by about 2,000 during Hogan’s tenure.

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Last year, Hogan hired Robert L. Green as secretary of the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. Green immediately began an aggressive hiring campaign.

In an interview Thursday, Green said that “staffing is my No. 1 priority.” He said he streamlined the hiring process and began holding one-day hiring events across the state ― in Salisbury, Frederick and Baltimore. He’s also begun recruiting from Puerto Rico.

In 2020, he plans to hold 15 more one-day hiring events.

Green said he hired 267 correctional officers in 2019, an increase from the 63 hired in 2016. “That level of change is extraordinary," he said. “We have vacancies, but we are really putting our best foot forward.”

Hogan also authorized a 10% salary increase for correctional officers, who now start at $43,013.

The administration also put an $8 million incentive package in the budget that provides a signing bonus of $7,500 and a payment of $30,000 to each retirement-eligible officer who commits to stay in their current position for at least four more years.

Legislative analysts call the administration’s recent efforts to hire more correctional officers “commendable.”

Ryan Bishop, director of the Office of Policy Analysis of Legislative Services, wrote lawmakers this month that “substantial actions have been taken to combat [correctional officer] vacancies.” But even with those efforts, Bishop wrote, the state is still losing more officers than it is hiring.

From July 2017 to October 2019, more than 1,100 officers left their jobs, about half of them retiring, he said.

The system “has struggled since calendar 2015 to maintain adequate staffing levels,” Bishop wrote. “Operating without a fifth of necessary [correctional officer] staff and without a quarter of administrative staff means that programs, policies, and reforms enacted by the legislature cannot be implemented to their fullest degree.”

The short-staffing creates a greater danger that officers — and other inmates — will be assaulted, advocates say.

Assaults have increased at some facilities the past several years but not at others, according to data the state released Friday in response to a public information request by The Baltimore Sun. At the Western Correctional Institution, for instance, assaults on staff are at a five-year high, with more than 1 assault per every 100 inmates. At Baltimore’s Central Booking and Intake Center, the rate is 7 assaults per every 100 inmates, a three-year low.

Offender-on-offender assaults are up signficantly at some institutions. They have tripled at the North Branch Correctional Institute since 2014 to about 6 assaults per every 100 inmates; at the Jessup Correctional Institute, they’ve quadrupled, also to about 6 assaults per every 100 inmates.

Lack of staff also can mean inadequate care for inmates.

“We have plenty of health care emergencies that have occurred where no one was there to respond to those emergencies,” said Julie Magers, who leads the Maryland Prisoners’ Rights Coalition. “If there’s not enough staff to work, these institutions go on lockdown. So through no fault of their own, these individuals who are incarcerated end up in a type of segregation."

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Jeff Grabenstein, a correctional officer who works at North Branch in Western Maryland, said he sees colleagues leaving the prison for multiple reasons: some to retirement, some to seek better pay and conditions at county jails. He said the forced overtime shifts cause many to rethink the profession after they arrive at work to learn they will be working a 16-hour shift instead of 8 hours.

“Who’s gonna pick up the kids? I was supposed to go to the school,” he recalls one colleague saying. “The officer doesn’t want to be there. His mind’s not in the right mindset to be there. Some of them haven’t had the rest. Some of them are fighting sleep.”

Patrick Okafor, a correctional officer with 21 years of experience, said staffing wasn’t a big problem until the past few years. Now he calls it “serious.”

“Every officer is doing three men’s jobs,” said Okafor, who works at the Dorsey Run prison in Jessup. “We do the best we can do, but we don’t have the manpower. The officers lose their family lives.”

Several years ago, he had to miss three weeks of work after he was injured by an inmate in an attack.

“The inmate had drugs and a cellphone. I gave him an order to hand it over,” Okafor said. “He jumped me. I was bruised up.”

Green said he is working to make sure the prisons are as safe as possible while he tries to stem the growing tide of vacancies.

“We have no disagreement with anyone that staff safety is extremely important,” he said. “We are as committed to that as anyone else. That is always at the forefront of what we do.”

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