Problem Guards

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Saturday, July 26, 2008

THE PROBLEMS at the Prince George's County jail go beyond the apparent murder of an inmate who was accused of killing a police officer. The Post's Debbie Cenziper and James Hohmann have reported that at least a dozen correctional officers at the county's jail had run-ins with the law, including charges of theft and assault (including domestic violence).

It is troubling that officers who ran afoul of the law were in charge of enforcing it. It is equally disturbing that the jail's leadership hired and retained officers with criminal backgrounds. The actions of about a dozen officers unfairly reflect on the majority of security personnel, who adhere to the law. The investigation into inmate Ronnie L. White's death is ongoing, but, irrespective of the outcome of that probe, it is clear that the Prince George's jail is in need of comprehensive reform.

Prince George's officials would not discuss the jail's hiring, firing or disciplinary procedures, citing the ongoing investigation. But people familiar with the Prince George's facility said the jail's oversight practices were lackluster. Most jails check an applicant's criminal and employment histories, and many conduct a psychological evaluation. More vigilant jails will extensively probe an applicant's résumé for warning signs and regularly check for criminal offenses once an applicant is hired. These jails will certainly not employ an officer charged with domestic violence. Someone who can't control his anger with a spouse shouldn't oversee inmates.

Nearly half of the jail's officers have been on the job for less than five years, according to a Post analysis. The jail reported that officers used force against inmates 100 times in 2006, more than twice as often as in 2003. This year alone, one corrections officer was arrested on suspicion of supplying cellphones to inmates and another was charged with armed robbery and assault. Several inmates were also found with handcuff keys. The director of corrections was fired on June 4 after four of the jail's handguns were found to be missing.

County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) arranged for the American Correctional Association to assess the jail's practices. But the ACA is not set up to conduct this type of review and may approach the task with kid gloves. Numerous other organizations could conduct a more credible investigation than the ACA is equipped to do. Mr. Johnson should seek assistance among these organizations and begin reforming the problem-plagued Prince George's jail.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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