BALTIMORE (AP) — Maryland's prisons chief has fought corruption by aggressively investigating bad behavior and rigorously screening new corrections officers. But some guards say it's taking too long to hire more recruits, and with nearly 800 positions open, they're so understaffed the prisons are becoming more dangerous.
"We're scared for our lives because anything can happen in there, and there won't be enough staff to respond," said Sgt. Patrick Okafor, who has worked as a corrections officer in Maryland for eighteen years. "We need more staff."
The prisons agency acknowledges the vacant positions but says its facilities always have an adequate number of guards on duty.
The problem started years ago, but corrections officers say it has gotten worse since last year, when Maryland shuttered one of the nation's most notorious jails, a state-run facility in Baltimore, and shifted its inmates to other already understaffed facilities.
Inside that Baltimore jail, gang-affiliated guards helped inmates smuggle drugs, cellphones and other contraband in exchange for money and sex. Authorities said the ringleader impregnated at least three guards.
Not long after the scandal grabbed headlines, Stephen Moyer took over the Department of Corrections. Moyer came aboard in January 2015 when Gov. Larry Hogan took office and both men worked to close the jail.
Moyer said in an interview with The Associated Press that the governor chose him because of his previous work fighting corruption.
As deputy secretary of what was then called the Department of Juvenile Justice from 1999 to 2002, Moyer helped clean house at the troubled Victor Cullen Academy, a 225-bed, privately managed facility that suffered from a rash of escapes and assaults. Under Moyer's watch, two employees were fired amid allegations they held a "Saturday Morning Fight Club" in a secluded part of the campus to let youths resolve their disputes.
Moyer said when the governor called him to lead the troubled prisons agency, he said: "There's two ways to go after corruption: No. 1, investigate, prosecute and send people to prison who do horrible things, and No. 2, look at who you're hiring and why you're hiring them."
Moyer, who spent 24 years with the state police, said under his leadership recruits are now subjected to a rigorous background check and a mandatory polygraph test. Moyer said he would rather pay overtime to the guards he does have than hire any more bad apples.
There are 777 positions open in the state's 24 facilities, which house about 21,000 prisoners. Currently, the state employs just over 6,000 correctional officers.
He recently held job fairs to recruit candidates, and this month started offering bonuses to corrections officers who recruit friends and family.
But guards say the hiring is not happening fast enough. A corrections officer at the Maryland Reception, Diagnostic and Classification Center said he experienced firsthand the consequences of the understaffing. Jermaine Barnes said he was pushed down a flight of stairs by an inmate in January when he was trying to give the prisoner his medication. If there had been another guard, they may have been able to restrain the inmate.
"I was giving him his medication, and he pushed me out of the cell. I chased him and he ended up pushing me down a flight of steps. I injured my ankle," said Barnes, who appeared at a news conference wearing a boot and walking with crutches.
The corrections officers who spoke to The Associated Press made it clear they do not represent the agency, but wanted to share personal experiences.
Prisons spokesman Gerard Shields said in an email Friday that the facilities are never understaffed because guards are working overtime. He said the corrections officer who injured his foot did so when the prison was fully staffed.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees has for months complained about the hiring lag time.
"No one wants correctional officers to be honest more than fellow correctional officers, who depend on their co-workers to have their backs," union representative Jeff Pittman said in a statement.
The most recent plea for more guards came after a news conference last week announced the single largest indictment in Maryland's history: 80 people, including 18 prison guards, 35 inmates and 27 others, charged with a drug and cellphone smuggling scheme at a prison on the state's Eastern Shore.
Court papers outlined a scheme that involved guards overseeing and encouraging violence. According to the indictment, two guards in separate instances convinced inmates to stab other prisoners, in one case in retaliation for a prisoner filing a complaint against the officer.
Moyer said last week that he's currently conducting many more investigations into allegations of corruption across the entire state.
Linda Tilghman, a 13-year veteran at Patuxent Institution, a treatment-oriented maximum-security prison, said she agrees with Moyer that new guards must be more carefully screened, but said the vacancies must be filled soon.
"There's no other way to put it," she said. "Morale is low, because they're working folks to death. You never know, when the phone rings at the end of my shift, if they're trying to draft me again. I've never seen it like this."