- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 23, 2008

CUMBERLAND, Md. — Two state lawmakers from Western Maryland have asked the state’s prison chief to reinstate 23 fired correctional officers until investigations into charges of brutality against inmates at two prisons are complete.

The officers — 15 at the medium-security Roxbury Correctional Institution near Hagerstown and eight at the maximum-security North Branch Correctional Institution near Cumberland — were fired this month. None of the unidentified officers has been charged pending the outcome of criminal investigations led by the Maryland State Police.

Prison officials have defended their actions, saying that when correctional officers are accused of wrongdoing, state law requires the agency to take any disciplinary action within 30 days after learning of the misconduct. Any officers subsequently exonerated can be reinstated with no loss of salary or benefits — as two other Roxbury officers were, several days after they were fired.

Delegate Kevin Kelly, Allegany Democrat, objected to the mass firings in a letter to Public Safety and Correctional Services Secretary Gary D. Maynard. Writing on behalf of himself and Sen. George C. Edwards, Garrett and Allegany Republican, Mr. Kelly said that “basic fairness dictates an employee is not terminated prior to the conclusion of an investigation.”

The letter, dated Thursday, was obtained Monday by the Cumberland Times-News.

Mr. Kelly asked Mr. Maynard to consider reinstating the officers and then either assigning them to jobs that don’t require inmate contact or placing them on paid leave until the investigations are done.

Mr. Edwards told the Times-News that the officers should be presumed innocent until proven guilty.

Division of Correction spokesman Mark Vernarelli said in an e-mailed response yesterday to the Associated Press that Mr. Maynard hasn’t yet responded to the lawmakers’ request.

Mr. Maynard said in an April 10 statement that the firings were “not done recklessly or hastily. It’s been done because the investigation has shown serious violations of departmental policy.” He issued the statement a day before the agency confirmed the reinstatement of the two Roxbury officers. They were reinstated April 8 and 9, according to the American Federation of State, Municipal and County Employees, the officers’ collective bargaining agent.

AFSCME spokesman Joe Lawrence said the letter shows “growing recognition” that the mass firings “were carried out recklessly without adequate investigation.”

The firings stemmed from charges that North Branch officers used excessive force against as many as seven inmates transferred there from Roxbury after fighting with Roxbury guards March 6, and that Roxbury officers used excessive force against a Roxbury inmate on the weekend of March 8. State prison officials have said the incidents appear unrelated.

Maryland State Police spokesman Gregory Shipley said investigators are continuing to look for evidence of criminal violations and consulting with state’s attorneys to determine whether any charges will be placed. Mr. Shipley said the probe has no projected end date.

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