The staffing crisis in Maryland prisons has reached a breaking point with “alarming levels of mandatory overtime, burnout and dangerous working conditions that threaten public safety,” according to a new report by the AFSCME Maryland Council 3.

The report is the first study on Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services staffing shortages that had the full collaboration of the union representing correctional officers. It concluded that the agency would need to hire 3,417 officers to reach what the union considers safe staffing levels in Maryland’s 19 adult prisons.

While some efforts have been made on the recruitment side recently, union leadership warned that retention was equally important and would become more of a challenge. AFSCME Maryland’s President Patrick Moran predicted that there would be a “deluge of officers leaving” over the next year.

“That’s a result of opportunities elsewhere, and that’s a result of people just being worn out, constantly having to work 16-hour shifts, constantly being subjected to violence, constantly not being able to spend time with their families and their communities,” Moran said.

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The report involved more than just number-crunching, with the union deploying seasoned correctional officers to every prison in the state to assess how staffing shortages were affecting the facilities.

They found that staffing shortages were “extreme” and created a “dangerous cycle where there is no standard officer-to-incarcerated-person ratio in place.” As a result, there have been more violent assaults, including prisoners attacking each other, prisoners attacking officers and officers attacking prisoners, the union said.

Moran said that violence at “almost every institution” is “significantly high, and that is a direct result of the staffing shortages we are outlining here today.”

Additionally, the staffing shortages have impacted in-person and virtual visitation, road crews and work release programs, educational activities, vocational shops, outdoor and indoor recreation, library and chapel time, and medical appointments, among other issues, according to the report.

Brittany Cozart, a 15-year-veteran correctional officer who has spent the last six years working at the Metropolitan Transition Center in Baltimore, said that the staffing shortages have led to serious injuries, including one officer who was brutally assaulted last year and lost one of his eyes as a result.

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“We’re not able to get the work done, and those of us that are getting the work done and staying are not being compensated for all of the extra work that we’ve taken on,” Cozart said. “This has led to numerous resignations, health issues and even death for some of our fellow officers.”

The union is recommending that the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services streamline and “decentralize” its hiring process, allowing the hiring department to move more quickly and select candidates based on individual institutions’ needs.

It is also recommending more lucrative retirement packages and that the agency restore wages being based on years of service to incentivize retention as seasoned correctional officers leave for less dangerous work environments, like Amazon shipping hubs.

The Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services said in a statement that the vacancies and staff shortages were “alarming,” but added that Gov. Wes Moore “has been very clear that it is a major priority of his to fill these roles and get the state government back to firing on all cylinders.”

The department said that it has hired 404 new employees, though it did not specify how many of them were correctional officers, since Secretary Carolyn Scruggs has taken over — 62% more hires than at this point last year.

bconarck@thebaltimorebanner.com

Ben Conarck is a criminal justice reporter for The Baltimore Banner. Previously, he covered healthcare and investigations for the Miami Herald and criminal justice for the Florida Times-Union.

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