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Correctional facility staff want resources to make job better

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Correctional facility staff want resources to make job better

Dec 08, 2023 | 6:55 am ET
By William J. Ford
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Correctional facility staff want resources to make job better
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Del. Rachel Muñoz (R-Anne Arundel) moderates a panel on corrections officers Dec. 7, 2023, at the Maryland Association of Counties winter conference in Cambridge. Photo by Bryan P. Sears.

Maryland and its 24 major local jurisdictions employ thousands of correctional officers to oversee, manage and try to maintain order in jails, prisons and other facilities.

Notably missing in some county jails: windows.

That’s because they aren’t required to install them in areas where employees work, said Amanda Tondin, a Talbot County correctional officer and a programs coordinator at the county jail. However, she said, a small window placed high is required for jail cells.

“I use my screensaver” to project light in work area, she said in a brief interview Thursday.

Tondin joined other correctional staff at the Maryland Association of Counties winter conference in Cambridge to discuss the push for support and more resources for correctional staff.

In their corner is Del. Rachel Muñoz (R-Anne Arundel), who moderated the discussion called “Correctional Officers as Caregivers: The Importance of Mental Health and Crisis Support.”

Muñoz said she may craft state legislation to require windows to be installed throughout county jails.

“If we take better care of our correctional officers, they’ll be able to take better care of our inmates,” she said after the discussion.

Another proposal Muñoz wants to present when the General Assembly convenes Jan. 10 is a statewide mental health and crisis intervention program, based on a program at the Charles County Sheriff’s Office.

The county created a wellness committee comprised of police, sheriff’s office employees and civilians. As part of its work the group organizes includes blood drives, suicide awareness activities, holiday and “morale-building” events and visits by therapy dogs. The sheriff’s office has also created a mental health and wellness app for deputies and other employees. The app helps users find mental health resources and provides nutritional guidance and guided meditation.

‘Find the money’

Jacqueline Burson, a mental health liaison in the Charles County sheriff’s office, highlighted some statistics on the health of correctional officers, from a 2021 white paper issued by One Voice United, a national organization comprised of correctional officers and other staff. According to that document:

  • 31% of correctional officers experience depression, compared to 12% of police officers and 9% of general population.
  • 34% of correctional officers experience post-traumatic stress disorder; 12% police officers; nearly 4% general population.

Terry Kokolis, director of Talbot County Department of Corrections, said officers endure long work hours, a constant stressful environment and lack of competitive pay compared to other public safety occupations.

Those conditions have created vacancies in his jurisdiction and other places in the state.

“They have options and leaving is one of the options, but the [jail] population is static,” he said.

Inadequate staffing is also a problem at prisons and other state facilities managed by the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Maryland Council 3 released a 120-page report this year that showed a staffing shortage of more than 3,400 in all 19 state facilities.

That union represents more than 5,000 state and local correctional officers statewide.

“On the State level the administration has been working hard to fill these positions and has a dedicated recruitment unit,” Stuart Katzenberg, director of collective bargaining and growth for the union, said in an email Thursday. “However, hiring has not been enough to both fill existing vacancies nor enough to fill the thousands of additional positions needed.”

A representative with DPSCS could not be reached for comment.

Back at the MACo conference, funding remains the main challenge to improve jails and prisons and provide additional resources for staff.

“That’s the next step for 2024. Find the money,” Muñoz said.