- The Washington Times - Monday, August 7, 2006

ANNAPOLIS (AP) — On the eve of an expected tough questioning session by Democratic lawmakers, Public Safety Secretary Mary Ann Saar defended her handling of Maryland’s prison system yesterday, saying that staffing levels played no role in the recent death of a correctional officer at the Maryland House of Correction.

“All posts in that cell block were filled” when Officer David McGuinn, 42, was stabbed and killed at the Jessup prison last month, Miss Saar said in a conference call with reporters.

There are 47 vacancies at the Maryland House of Correction at Jessup because the prison system is having trouble hiring correctional officers at that institution and others in the Jessup area, she said.

But she said other factors, including a rise in gang activity in prisons, are primarily responsible for an increase in violence at the House of Correction.

Miss Saar said she has no intention of resigning as secretary of corrections because she has the full support of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican seeking re-election.

She also said she thinks the plan that she has put in place to improve staffing levels and increase rehabilitation programs is working.

“We have a good plan: We are staying the course,” Miss Saar said. “As long as I have the full support of my governor — which I do — that’s what I’m going to do.”

Miss Saar’s handling of prison system problems has been criticized by union officials and Democratic lawmakers.

“People are dying on this administration’s watch, and something needs to be done,” state Sen. James E. DeGrange Sr., Anne Arundel County Democrat, told the Baltimore Sun.

“They need to change direction, and frankly, I don’t see that happening, and I don’t think there’s the will to do that,” he said.

Mr. DeGrange is chairman of one of two budget subcommittees that summoned Miss Saar to a hearing scheduled today to discuss recent prison system violence, including the fatal stabbing of Officer McGuinn and the death of a Roxbury Correctional Institution officer, Jeffery Wroten, 44, who was killed in January while watching an inmate at a local hospital.

The two were the first correctional officers killed in the line of duty since the death of Herman L. Toulson in 1984.

Miss Saar’s priorities also have been criticized by union leaders who represent correctional officers.

“She has ideas about programs, and those programs are fine, but I think she forgot the No. 1 priority, which is public safety and security,” Ron Bailey, executive director of the American Federation of State, Council and Municipal Employees Council 92, told the Sun.

Some of the criticism has focused on implementation of Project RESTART, a plan put in place by Miss Saar to provide more rehabilitative services and drug treatment for inmates.

While the plan itself has drawn praise, critics argue that the first priority has to be to provide a secure, safe prison system for employees and inmates.

Miss Saar said the department has enough authorized positions to meet the staffing levels established in a study conducted after she became secretary upon the election of Mr. Ehrlich in 2002.

That study found that the system had 218 more correctional officer positions than were needed, even though the previous administration had said it needed 657 additional officers to provide a secure prison environment.

Miss Saar said the strong economy has made it difficult to fill correctional officer positions, which has led to 505 vacancies across the prison system, with 242 in the Jessup area.

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