Speaking to lawmakers on a budgetary subcommittee, Ibukun Jegede laid out the stakes of the Maryland prison staffing shortages in stark terms.

“In the yard, we’re supposed to have nine officers when recreation is going on, but we barely have two, watching over 200 incarcerated individuals,” Jegede, a correctional sergeant at the Maryland Correctional Institution in Jessup, said last week in Annapolis.

“It’s incredibly dangerous for everyone.”

The staffing crisis in Maryland prisons isn’t new — it dates back to 2015. But it is getting worse.

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Hundreds of correctional officers are leaving the department within a year of being hired, 310 of them in 2023, mainly due to the taxing demands of mandatory overtime, according to a recent legislative analysis.

The cost of overtime has risen to $185.6 million, representing 14% of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services budget. The overall fiscal year 2025 budget is about $1 billion, up by $6.1 million from the current fiscal year.

A legislative analysis said the overtime hours are leading to burnout and a “dangerous” correctional environment, tying the staffing shortages to increases in assaults and violence between prisoners.

A chart from a legislative analysis on the Maryland prison budget shows that assaults between prisoners remain elevated since the staffing crisis began in 2015 (Maryland Department of Legislative Services).

Jegede, who is also a shop steward for the union representing correctional officers, said those overtime hours — which typically range from 15 to 20 hours per week — take a toll on families.

“We get drafted almost every day to stay behind and do overtime, almost every day,” he said. “For the past week, I’ve seen my kids only once.”

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In a statement, the corrections department said that correctional officers and staff are the “backbone of protecting the public” and that it has made “significant strides in mitigating its vacancy rate” — the percentage of available positions for a given rank that are currently unfilled.

To that end, the department emphasized that the vacancy rate for correctional officers was 14.4% in February last year, but had dropped to 10.6% in February of this year.

“While the department recognizes that hiring remains a significant challenge in some regions of the state, it will continue to aggressively pursue opportunities to increase our workforce and support its dedicated and hard-working correctional officers every day, who are vital to the department’s mission and success,” said spokesperson Mark Vernarelli.

But the legislative analysis found that merely filling vacancies would not be enough to solve the staffing crisis — new correctional officer positions will need to be created to safely handle the number of prisoners and lower mandatory overtime.

AFSCME Maryland Council 3, the union representing Maryland prison correctional officers, said as much in a staffing study last year. The corrections department hired an independent firm to do its own study, which also suggested adding more than 2,000 new positions.

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A chart from a legislative analysis on the Maryland prison budget shows the gap between new correctional officer hires and departures (Maryland Department of Legislative Services).

Meanwhile, the number of people incarcerated in Maryland prisons is continuing to rise after a historic decline in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Between fiscal years 2020 and 2021, the population dropped from 18,281 to 15,726, which continued into the next year, with a more modest 3% decline in the fiscal year 2022.

But starting in the last fiscal year, that began to tick back up by about 2%, and this fiscal year, it’s up 4%, according to the legislative analysis, which attributes the increase to a dwindling backlog in criminal court systems.

A chart from a legislative analysis on the Maryland prison budget shows the rising number of individuals who are incarcerated (Maryland Department of Legislative Services).

Keith Wallington, director of advocacy at the Justice Policy Institute, said the prison population could have been lowered much more in a way that did not compromise public safety during the pandemic using the parole system, which he described as broken.

“A lot of other states were using parole to get folks out during the pandemic,” Wallington said. “It is not just about staffing, it’s about the fact that we still continue to keep people in for too long when you can safely allow those folks back out into the community and better use those resources.”

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The Justice Policy Institute released a study last year analyzing five years of parole data and found that parole eligibility was declining and the rate of granting parole lowered as prisoners aged, despite the fact that the likelihood of reoffending also drops prisoners grow older.

“The reality is that our dysfunctional parole system is causing public safety issues on the inside as well,” Wallington said. “To me, one of the ways you can address this is by fixing parole and opening the release valve so more folks are starting to come home.”

This story has been updated to clarify that the Justice Policy Institute report stated that the rate of parole granted is lower as prisoners age, despite the fact that the their likelihood of reoffending after parole drops as they grow older.