CUMBERLAND — Members of the union representing correctional officers from across the state held a rally Saturday in Cumberland asking for more officers and better working conditions.
Nearly 50 members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, along with state and local officials, attended the event held at 11:30 a.m in front of City Hall. The supporters said dangerous working conditions plague the correctional facilities.
Supporters carried signs reading “No more excuses,” “Hire more officers now,” “Leave our sick time alone” and “Safer workers, stronger services.”
Many of the AFSCME members attended another rally earlier in the day in Hagerstown. Patrick Moran, president of AFSCME Maryland Council 3, spoke in Cumberland.
“We are here today because Gov. [Larry] Hogan has ignored repeated calls, by state employees and members of the community, about the horrible public health and safety issues facing citizens in Western Maryland.”
Jason Daddysman, a correctional sergeant at the Western Correctional Institute in Cresaptown, said the shortage of staff is continuing to negatively impact the work environment.
“The shortage among security, staff, help and the lack of programs for incarcerated offenders continues,” Daddysman said. “As predicted, there has been a mass exodus of employees. We’ve lost scores of correctional officers to early retirement and work-related injuries, and more will leave our ranks this year.”
Daddysman said corrections is “underfunded, overworked and understaffed.”
“Our correctional professionals are not being valued or respected and are leaving,” Daddysman said. “We’ve been told there is no shortage. Overtime is increasing, but we cannot get new hires because standards are too rigid. We asked for help and Gov. Hogan immediately responded by having our budget cut for the remainder of this year, ensuring no staff will be hired.”
Moran said on Saturday that Hogan had called the union advocates “political operatives.”
“Gov. Hogan took a cheap shot calling his employees political operatives. I don’t see the people working in correctional facilities, mental health facilities, unemployment offices, or on our highways and roads as political operatives,” Moran said. “I view them as hard-working citizens and employees of the state of Maryland.”
“We would expect swift, immediate, meaningful action” from the governor, Moran said, “but he hasn’t done this. He decided that the public safety crisis and the mental health crisis is something less for people and something for the communities to deal with. It is unfair and unnecessary and insulting to the people who put their life on the line every day.”
Jeff Grabenstein, a correctional officer at the North Branch Correctional Institute and president of AFSCME Local 898, said the state is playing a “dangerous game of chess with peoples’ lives.”
“At the end of 2016, the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services had reached a 14 percent vacancy rating,” Grabenstein said. “The department increased hiring standards but has not increased correction officers’ pay. As a result, only 63 COs were recruited last year. Short staffing has led directly to assaults on staff, which more than doubled last year.”
In addition to the increase in inmate assaults on officers, he said inmate-on-inmate assaults were up 40 percent.
Grabenstein said understaffing has been ongoing.
“Most officers are involuntarily drafted for mandatory [overtime] once or twice a week,” he said. “At the end of 2016, Maryland had 981 correctional vacancies, which 41 percent are from 2015.
“At the end of 2015, the vacancy rate was 8 percent. It’s led to $70 million in OT expenditures. In 2016, a 14 percent vacancy rate will lead to over $80 million in overtime expenditures.”
Kim Dewey, who represented corrections in Delaware, is a 12-year veteran of that state’s corrections department. She spoke about the incident in Smyrna, Delaware, in which a correctional officer, Steven Floyd Sr., was murdered while on duty on Feb. 2 during a 20-hour hostage stand off.
“I’m standing here today to support our fellow brothers and sisters,” said Dewey, “eight months after one of our officers was murdered in a housing unit in which he took pride in going into every day. It is the same place he lost his life. Many of the same conditions we have in Delaware you have in Maryland.”
Maryland Sen. Roger Manno also spoke at the rally.
“This is not my first time here,” said Manno. “I’ve seen the problems. I’ve seen blue shirts and white shirts covered in blood because of funding shortages. After you see the fine work they are doing, there is the cliff waiting.
“These are the folks that provide the services that keep this state great,” he said. “As long as I have this job I will fight for them.”