AFSCME rings alarm on staffing shortages, vaccine mismanagement in Maryland prisons

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Unionized corrections workers said Monday that they are facing staff shortages and dangerous conditions in state prison facilities, citing a fire at a Baltimore pretrial detention center earlier this month that sent multiple people to the hospital.

At least two dozen incarcerated people and several prison staff members were hospitalized as a result of the Jan. 2 fire at the Maryland Reception, Diagnostic and Classification Center in Baltimore.

Lt. Latoya T. Gray, a spokesperson for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, told Maryland Matters on Monday evening that the fire is still under investigation.

“All three detainees who went to the hospital as a precaution were discharged within hours,” Gray said. “The correctional officers had non-life-threatening conditions.”

Patrick Moran, president of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 3, said that, because of backups in state courts, people are being held at the detention center both pre-trial and post-sentencing.

“Detainees are staying way too long at this facility and that leads to the situation like we saw,” Moran said. “The Hogan administration has continued to neglect the DOC, and their neglect has consistently put the DOC in danger — and I’m not talking just about our officers that are working in these facilities but, obviously, the inmates that they are overseeing.”

Gray said in a statement that an assistant secretary for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services spoke to AFSCME representatives immediately after the fire “and at no time did staffing come up as a concern for that particular incident.”

Sgt. Elisha Mack, who works at the detention center, said that the general conditions are unsafe: officers — including those assigned to carry weapons on duty — are working “upwards of 16 or more hours a day.”

According to Mack, there have also been problems securing people behind cell doors, leaving frontline staff more vulnerable to assault.

“The inmates are able to open the doors and come out of the cells,” said Mack. ”They’re able to assault staff; they’re able to assault one another. And it’s really — we’re always behind the eight ball with it.”

Gray said that assaults perpetrated against staff members and other incarcerated people have declined since 2019.

“Serious inmate-on-inmate assaults are down 72 percent; and serious inmate-on-staff assaults are down 44 percent,” she said.

During a news conference Monday afternoon, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) announced the expansion of his “re-fund the police” initiative into a three-year, $500 million program, including $220 million in salary increases and $137 million in state aid for local departments.

Speaking on behalf of his union Monday, Moran said that Hogan’s continued funneling of cash into police agencies — many of which have been allocated more money since 2020 — is “incredibly troubling” in light of the dangerous conditions in state correctional facilities.

He said that he spoke to a union member working at a Hagerstown prison who is slated to earn “at least double or more of his salary just in overtime, alone, this year” due to staffing shortages.

“The department cannot hold on to long-term employees,” he said. “They are leaving in droves.”

According to Moran, more than 10% of jobs within the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services are unfilled.

“Our state agencies are at the bone right now, and we need to make sure that we have the people in place to be able to do the jobs that we rely on them to do day in day out, and that so many people rely on,” Sen. Shelly Hettleman (D-Baltimore County) said.

The agency has struggled for years to hire new employees fast enough to fill vacancies, and the agency’s vacancy rate has been decreased in part by the elimination of state corrections jobs.

Gray said in an email Monday night that that agency has prioritized employee recruitment and retention and has offered hiring bonuses. She also said that the governor has supported boosting starting pay, and that beginning salaries have increased more than 20% since 2018.

“DPSCS has hired 954 correctional officers since January 2020, a staggering number given the pandemic and the nationwide struggles of law enforcement agencies to hire qualified people,” Gray said in a statement.

‘We simply do not know’

Marci Tarrant Johnson, the president of the Maryland Public Defenders Union, said that members have worked to advocate for their clients behind bars, but many are languishing — some have been incarcerated since 2019 and still have yet to attend court.

And the recent revelation that their clients may have been administered mismanaged vaccines by TrueCare24 — a state-contracted company — exacerbates hazardous conditions for an already vulnerable population.

Johnson told the press Monday that her members are still unclear which, if any, of their clients were administered the potentially spoiled vaccines, that they have not been offered boosters and that personal protective equipment is difficult to come by.

Moran said that the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services has not told AFSCME who in the system has received one of the mismanaged vaccines or what facilities TrueCare24 held clinics in.

“Giving out expired or mishandled vaccines to people who are entirely reliant on the state for their health and safety is unjust, immoral and it puts lives at risk,” said Johnson. “The Hogan administration’s failures are bad for everyone: incarcerated people, Department of Public Safety workers and the wider Maryland community.”

Gray said that staff members have adequate access to personal protective equipment and that its use is mandated inside each facility, and any inquiries regarding vaccines should be directed toward the Department of Health.

“The safety of its employees and the incarcerated remains the Department’s top priority,” she said.

According to Andy Owens, a spokesperson for the Department of Health, 135 incarcerated individuals were vaccinated by TrueCare24 across the state prison system, adding that letters were sent out last week to inform them about the problems with the contracted company.

“Make-up vaccination clinics have been scheduled to occur by Jan 14 at each of the affected correctional institutions,” he said.

Sen. Clarence K. Lam (D-Howard), the Senate’s only physician, reiterated Johnson’s message: state employees who interact with incarcerated people who may or may not be fully vaccinated are placing themselves, their families and their communities at a higher risk for infection.

Mack, who became infected on the job, is a case study of Lam’s theory.

Lam also said that, while the whistle was blown on TrueCare24, the state needs to exert more oversight and supervision of vaccine clinic providers.

“There’s not been a comprehensive review done by MDH of how these vaccines were handled by the vendors that were being employed by the state,” Lam said.

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