WASHINGTON – Prison officials are pleased with the success of lowering the age limit for guards four years ago, but the union that represents them says it continues to put the young adults at risk.
The policy that lowered the age for correctional service officers from 21 to 18, was adopted in November 2001 by the Maryland Police and Correctional Training Commissions. It was aimed in part at alleviating staff shortages and overtime bills in more rural counties such as St. Mary’s.
At the time, some officials were critical of the move, arguing that anyone under 21 was too immature to work in a prison — a criticism that still lingers.
Lt. Edward A. Willenborg, commander of the corrections division in St. Mary’s, said five of the 61 correctional officers in the county are under 21. Since the policy was adopted, the county has hired about 15 officers under 21, said Tom Sacks, personnel coordinator for the County Sheriff’s Office.
“It’s helped us in the recruitment considerably,” Sacks said. “We get people out of high school, and we’re offering them $35,000 — where else can a kid get that kind of money?”
Most of the 18- to 20-year-olds who apply for jobs as correctional officers with the county want to use the position as a springboard into law enforcement, Sacks said. Officers who switch to the law side can put their time spent working in corrections toward retirement.
But Archer Blackwell, the senior staff representative for Council 67 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said the policy puts under-21 officers at an “extreme risk.” Blackwell said the union, which represents state correctional officers, believes younger officers are not ready psychologically to work in prison.
“If the state had a better training program . . . the situation could work, but the state is not preparing all officers well enough,” Blackwell said.
Blackwell blamed administrators for trying to plug staff gaps with unqualified candidates.
“They were just trying to fill a void and thought it would work,” Blackwell said.
Tara Andrews, director of Justice Maryland, a prisoner rights group, said age should not be an overriding criterion in the hiring process.
“We want the department (of corrections) to make sure everyone they hire is educated and has a certain level of maturity and the necessary qualifications,” Andrews said. “Age should not be an immediate disqualifying factor.”
Although some correctional officials questioned the readiness of under-21 officers when the age limit was dropped, many now say immaturity has created few, if any, problems.
“They don’t have the same life experience, but what’s three years?” Willenborg said. “I’m not sure it makes a difference.”
In fact, younger officers’ lack of seasoning is often an asset, said Lt. Col. George C. Hardinger, the warden at the Carroll County Detention Center. Younger employers tend to be receptive to new ideas, while many older officers — often transfers from other careers — are set in their ways.
“Sometimes that can be as much of a problem as someone who’s not mature,” Hardinger said.
In Carroll County, 14 officers under 21 have been hired under the current policy, Hardinger said. Ten of those officers — six men and four women — still hold their jobs.
“Like anything else, some have worked out and some haven’t,” Hardinger said. “I know a number of people had reservations (about the change), but we haven’t found an unusually high number failed to make it. All in all, it’s worked out pretty much as we had expected.”
It’s worked out for Melissa Wantz, a 21-year-old hired at 19. Wantz said her experience in the County Detention Center has been “extremely different” from her friends’ jobs.
“You see anything from a small scrum to a murder,” said Wantz, who lives in Keymar. “It really opens your eyes to everything.”
Co-workers “quite often” treat her differently because of her age, and inmates think they can capitalize on her inexperience, she said.
“They’re going to see what they can and can’t get away with,” she said. “They think they can bend the rules.”
From her first day on the job, Wantz was given much the same duties as her fellow officers. The only restriction was transport duty, which requires the officer to carry a firearm. Under-21 officers are prohibited from carrying weapons.
Blackwell said that policy makes young officers a liability.
The age policy has created less of a ripple at the state level. As of this month, the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services employed 173 correctional officers under 21, according to John N. Flynn, the department’s director of human resources. Flynn said there was no record of the total number of under-21 officers hired since the change.
Surprisingly, confusion still lingers about the breadth of the policy. Some county officials believe the policy is optional, but Barry L. Stanton, director of corrections in Prince George’s, said it is mandatory statewide due to age-discrimination laws.
Stanton, whose department is short about eight officers, said he supported the policy as a recruiting tool from the outset.
Staffing is a constant struggle in St. Mary’s, but a recruiting test given Saturday offered promise, said Willenborg, the corrections commander. Of the applicants who reached the testing phase, more than 90 percent were under 21.
Both Willenborg and Sacks, the personnel coordinator, attributed the high turnout in part to cable television ads the county ran for the positions of deputy sheriff and correctional officer. “If I was 18 years old, this is a great place to start,” Willenborg said. “I would have thought, for those choosing not to go to college, this would be a good way to get your three years in before you turn 21.” – 30 – CNS-1-20-06