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As Long as We Remember...

June 27, 2005

Storm clouds gather over MCI Hagerstown

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

The Hagerstown Herald Mail, one of my five morning papers, runs an on-line poll as a popular web feature. Readers can comment, as long as they are respectful of other readers.

The issues dealt with, for the most part, track Frederick County issues; growth, city/county government relations, water infrastructure, and civility in politics.

Recently, the web poll ran a question about the Maryland Correctional Institute (MCI) in Hagerstown. The responses to that poll suggest a serious set of issues facing this institution.

Last month, Warden Joseph Sacchet submitted his resignation/retirement. Mr. Sacchet, unlike most high-level corrections officials, didn’t ride off quietly into the retirement sunset. He railed against the management of the Department of Corrections (DOC), both locally in Hagerstown as well as the overall agency.

By most accounts, Mr. Sacchet had a reasonably good tenure as warden at MCI Hagerstown. No one would have a perfect record in that business, as tensions always run high, working conditions are extremely difficult, and animosity runs deep.

In a surprising twist, some of the corrections officers (CO’s) now praising Warden Sacchet for his “honesty” were his most vocal critics when he ran the facility. This makes my point about the difficulty of working in the prison business.

Mr. Sacchet attacked what he referred to as “dictatorial” management and blamed the highest levels of the state DOC for allowing unsafe conditions to exist at MCI Hagerstown.

The web poll supported that allegation with a number of postings that added a level of specificity and anger to the groundwork Warden Sacchet laid in his resignation.

Several former CO’s used their real names in the poll, adding a level of credibility, while several current employees refused to reveal their names for fear of reprisal.

The lists of complaints are so numerous that I can’t list them all, so I’ll focus on the ones that sound the most serious and ominous to my untrained ear.

Now, I’m no brilliant thinker blessed with amazing comprehension. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take someone like that to see that a problem exists, and that something has to be done about it.

Let me first say that when the Washington County Legislative Delegation requested a meeting with Secretary Saar, she readily agreed. According to the legislators who were present (I had a conflict with a legislative committee meeting that day), she was concerned and determined to gather more information and try to resolve differences.

She did not dismiss the concerns, nor did she immediately accept what was said when considering the complaints. She’s been around long enough to understand that there are always two sides to every story.

Joe Sacchet’s angry tone deserves attention, if for no other reason than his tenure as warden. He had to know what he was talking about, even though some of his resentment might have been fueled by personal disagreement(s) with his superiors.

The individual CO’s concerns are more difficult to evaluate, but warrant evaluation anyway.

One could argue that at the shift level, it is hard for an individual CO to see the whole picture of running a large prison. Even harder to visualize would be the operations of an entire corrections system. Individual decisions that might make one CO’s job a little tougher might have larger implications across the system.

Even if you dismiss some of the workplace concerns as fueled by individual self-interests, it’s much harder to ignore personal and public safety concerns. Guard-to-inmate ratios have grown, although not to the 1-600 ratio listed in a recent posting to the poll.

Gang activity is on the rise in prison. Unfortunately, it’s also rising in the community outside of the high walls, bars, and razor wire. We cannot solve that problem merely by increasing the number of prison guards because that approach has no upper limit.

So where does this go?

Union officials representing the guards need to prioritize their concerns and keep in mind that it will not be possible to address every issue to their full satisfaction. Further, there are decisions that must be made at a higher organizational level which, when taken at face value, might seem counter to the interests of the guards.

At the same time, the leadership of the DOC has to recognize that as long as CO’s harbor deep-seeded resentment and frustration, improvements in the operation of the prison is a critical matter, and it warrants immediate, serious, and thoughtful attention.

Watch for the Washington County Legislative Delegation to seek a more creative way to communicate with all who expressed their opinions and interests in this very complicated and grave matter.

This is one storm that just won’t blow over.

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