By Debbie Cenziper and James Hohmann
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, July 25, 2008
More than a dozen corrections officers at the Prince George's County jail have had run-ins with the law that include charges of theft, assault, domestic violence and drunken driving, and many of them were kept on the force, records show.
One 13-year veteran was convicted of second-degree assault after he beat a woman, breaking her rib. Another was caught driving with a blood alcohol level more than three times the legal limit. The same year, a judge had ordered him to move out of his home after he allegedly threatened to kill his wife.
The officers' legal troubles raise more questions about the jail's management and the caliber and competency of those responsible for keeping order. The jail has been under intense scrutiny in recent weeks after the apparent strangulation of 19-year-old inmate Ronnie L. White, the latest in a spate of high-profile incidents.
In the past seven months, jail officials have suspended at least six officers, some of whom were charged criminally. Two were suspended for allegedly smuggling cellphones into the jail for inmates; two more were accused of having sex with prisoners. One was suspended after he was charged with robbing two teenagers at gunpoint in Charles County, another after he allegedly assaulted his wife.
The Washington Post identified an additional nine officers who worked at the jail after they were accused of crimes or violence. More than half were convicted or were served with domestic violence protective orders. In other cases, prosecutors decided to postpone prosecution or not pursue the charges. None was among those identified by a law enforcement source as being of particular interest in the White investigation.
Among the nine officers was Mark R. Bradley, whose then-wife asked for a protective order in 1998, claiming he had threatened, taunted, punched and slapped her in their Charles County home. When she reached for the phone, Bradley, who had been on the force for almost four years, yanked it away.
In the petition, his wife recalled him saying: "Call the police. . . . Make me lose my job. I'll kill you."
Almost a decade later, he was still on the payroll at the jail, despite three protective orders issued against him in the late 1990s. In 2004, he pleaded guilty to assaulting another woman, whose rib was broken. The woman, who had been 11 weeks pregnant with his child, told police that after a beating days earlier, she had a miscarriage. A judge put Bradley on probation and ordered him to take an anger management class.
He did not return repeated calls seeking comment.
Prince George's officials would not discuss the officers or answer questions about the jail's hiring, firing or disciplinary procedures, citing the ongoing investigation into White's death. White, charged with killing a police officer, was found dead in his maximum security cell late last month. The state's medical examiner preliminarily ruled the death a homicide, and the case is being investigated by the Maryland State Police, the FBI and the county state's attorney.
"Due to the critical nature of the ongoing investigation, it is not in the public's best interest to discuss those issues until the investigation is concluded," Public Safety Director Vernon Herron said in a statement.
The county has hailed the 21-year-old correctional center in Upper Marlboro as a safe environment with national accreditation and state-of-the-art design. But government reports point to crowding and increased violence.
Designed for about 1,330 prisoners, the jail currently holds an estimated 1,500. Most of the inmates are male and awaiting trial or have received sentences generally less than two years. The jail employs an estimated 450 security personnel, according to a state audit, and officers, who are male and female, go through a county training program.
In addition to the nine officers identified by The Post who were kept on the force, other guards have faced criminal charges, records show. They were suspended, and two are in jail.
Renardo Humphrey was jailed this week after being convicted in Charles County of armed robbery, his attorney said. Police said Humphrey and four others held up two teenagers with a BB gun that resembled a handgun in January. Humphrey was accused of driving the car that carried the suspects. After his arrest, the jail suspended him without pay.
Last year, officer Kenneth Paul St. Clair, who joined the force in 2004 at age 18, was convicted of second-degree child abuse involving an 11-month-old boy. According to police, the infant had multiple rib fractures, a depressed skull fracture, internal bleeding, bruises on his chest, face and forehead and a bite mark on his shoulder. St. Clair is now in jail.
A third officer, on the force since 2002, was charged in May with sexually assaulting his wife. Prosecutors dropped the charges this week after his wife would no longer cooperate; the officer's attorney said he had been placed on administrative leave.
State officials would not comment on the jail's personnel policies, saying management is handled locally.
The Maryland Correctional Training Commission, an arm of the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, prohibits jails from using officers who have had felony or serious misdemeanor convictions.
But regulations do not spell out how jails should discipline officers who are arrested, served with domestic violence protective orders or convicted of less serious offenses.
"It is a responsibility of the local agencies," said the commission's executive assistant director, Ray Franklin. "They have the first responsibility of protecting the public safety of their communities."
Officials at other jails in the Washington area say they conduct background checks when promoting corrections officers and require that officers self-report any arrests, which can lead to dismissal.
In Montgomery County, officials said they screen officers yearly for criminal and traffic offenses and send any new cases to the county for review.
"There's no substitute for an aggressive . . . background review process," said Arthur Wallenstein, director of the Montgomery County Department of Correction and Rehabilitation. "It takes time. It's cumbersome. But we don't cut corners."
The nine officers at the Prince George's County jail who got into trouble after they were hired were still listed as jail employees on a December 2007 county personnel list, the most current available. Herron would not say whether or how they were disciplined or whether any had been placed on administrative leave.
Officials with the Prince George's Correctional Officers Association did not return repeated calls seeking comment.
Three of the officers were convicted, including one for negligent driving, Bradley for assault and Kenneth A. Bruce for drunken driving after a guilty plea in Charles County in 2006. He was put on supervised probation by a judge, with the condition that he had to get permission to own or carry a gun. In a letter to the judge, Bruce asked for the condition to be lifted, citing his job as a correctional officer.
"I do not pose any danger while carrying a weapon in the course of my duties on or off the job," he wrote. The judge granted the request.
A year earlier, a Prince George's County judge had issued a protective order against Bruce and forced him to temporarily leave the family's home after his wife reported that he had threatened her and had access to a gun on the job, along with several rifles and pistols.
According to her petition, Bruce told his wife, "You better be glad you are not dead by now." The case was later dismissed at his wife's request.
"Whatever happened in my business is my business," he said when contacted by phone by a Post reporter.
When asked to explain the arrests, he said, "Here's my explanation right here," and hung up.
Other officers were also served with domestic violence protective orders, including David Nkemtitah, whose ex-girlfriend filed a petition for protection this year saying he had restrained her in the bathroom while his new girlfriend bit her and hit her in the head with high-heeled shoes.
Nkemtitah did not return calls seeking comment.
David Fathi, U.S. program director of the New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch, said: "Being a corrections officer . . . is a stressful job that requires self-control, the ability to control anger. Someone who has a demonstrated inability to control anger is singularly ill-suited to be a corrections officer."
In several cases in which jail officers were charged with crimes, including theft and assault, prosecutors indefinitely postponed their cases or decided not to pursue the charges.
Jail officials have said in the past that they have had trouble recruiting and keeping good officers. A Post analysis found that turnover is high: Almost half the officers at the jail have been on the job for less than five years, according to the most recent data available.
County records show that the number of disturbances, emergency responses and inmate assaults have increased, along with the number of times officers have used force to subdue inmates. The jail reported that officers used force against inmates 100 times in 2006, more than double the number reported in 2003.
A 2008 report by the Maryland Commission on Correctional Standards, which audits jails and prisons across the state, was largely positive but recommended that the jail do a better job of documenting that medical care was provided after officers restrained inmates.
Auditors also recommended that the jail ensure that security equipment from the armory, which can include guns, handcuffs and riot gear, is properly logged in and out. In June, Prince George's corrections chief Alfred J. McMurray Sr. was fired when the jail could not account for four missing 9mm pistols.
After White's death late last month, jail officials announced that they will hire independent experts to study the facility's policies.
The jail should also consider changing its screening procedures for officers, said Alexander Busansky, a former federal prosecutor and director of the Washington office of the Vera Institute of Justice, a research and policy group.
Jails need to ensure "not just that we hire the right people but that we continue to check on them to make sure our trust in their performance is warranted," he said.
Staff researcher Meg Smith, database editor Dan Keating and staff writers Ruben Castaneda, Christy Goodman and Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.