Unrelenting Troubles at Jail In Pr. George's Scream for Reform

By Robert McCartney
Sunday, July 19, 2009

Dostoevsky said, "The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons."

By that standard, American civilization is in a bad state. It's well documented that our prisons and jails are violent, overcrowded and filled with gangs and drugs.

This is not only morally offensive, as Dostoevsky suggested, but also self-defeating. Although most convicts deserve their punishment, and prison should be a hard place, the people in there usually get out. When they do, it's no help if prison doesn't help them adjust to society but rather makes them more hostile toward it.

The public doesn't care. In earlier periods in our history, prison reform was often a priority for do-gooders. In our era, we've waged a war on drugs that's driven the U.S. rate of incarceration to the highest in the world -- and then ignored what happens to the more than 2 million people we've put away.

There are welcome exceptions to this trend, though, and two in particular in the Washington region. First, the Prince George's County jail has drawn a bright spotlight in the year since the dramatic, suspicious death there of Ronnie L. White a day after his arrest as chief suspect in the killing of Prince George's police Cpl. Richard S. Findley. Civil rights groups and the media have pressured county authorities to halt repeated security lapses at the Upper Marlboro facility.

Separately, Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) has taken it upon himself to lead a campaign to reform prisons as part of a broad effort to fix the criminal justice system, which he calls "a national disgrace." He has obtained bipartisan support in the Senate Judiciary Committee for legislation he proposed in March to create a blue-ribbon commission to propose specific reforms to reduce the inmate population, improve prison administration and better integrate ex-offenders, among other concerns.

In Prince George's, Vernon Herron, the public safety director, and Mary Lou McDonough, the acting corrections director, have taken some actions to fix the jail, such as upgrading its video camera system, putting more supervisors on the floor and increasing training time for guards. Problems persist, however, and the U.S. Justice Department should investigate, as the NAACP has asked.

The need was reinforced in June with two assaults on inmates by other prisoners at the jail. On June 6, an inmate who reportedly belongs to the Bloods street gang was able to enter another cell and badly beat a prisoner after a guard mistakenly opened a door; he faces criminal charges. And six inmates have been charged with assaulting another inmate and breaking his jaw in an incident nine days later in the jail gymnasium. The crowd of assailants blocked guards' view.

The jail's troubles have aroused interest because of the White case, which has shocked the public because the official explanation is hard to believe. Police concluded that White might have committed suicide, apparently by hanging himself, even though the medical examiner's office ruled it a homicide. The only guard with access to White gave conflicting accounts of what happened and failed an initial polygraph test, but State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey decided that he didn't have enough evidence to prosecute.

That led the NAACP to formally ask the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division to investigate. It also urged a wider inquiry into "potential official misconduct causing ongoing civil rights violations" at the jail. The Justice Department is reviewing the request.

Even before the assaults in June, bad news from the jail was unrelenting. In May, a civil jury awarded $32,500 to an inmate who was beaten by a guard in August 2007. In February, an inmate was found dead in his cell after having improperly taken two prescription medications. McDonough said the inmate had obtained one illicitly from another inmate and been issued the other but had taken too much after hoarding it.

"The list [of incidents] is getting longer and longer, and no one seems to be concerned about it," said June Scott Dillard, president of the county NAACP. She will discuss the jail with Herron and County Executive Jack B. Johnson at a meeting Wednesday.

County authorities find the negative publicity maddening, in part because they say that other facilities have comparable problems, or worse, and that theirs is singled our unfairly. "It appears from the reports that this is the worst-run facility in the country. That's the furthest thing from the truth," Herron said.

He and McDonough cited recent improvements, some that came after a review of the jail by the American Correctional Association in the wake of White's death. Video cameras in the jail now can record events rather than just observe them. Eighteen sergeants have been added, raising the total to 74. However, that's been achieved in part by reducing the number of majors and captains from 13 to 6, and the union complained that some sergeants lack necessary experience. While some low-risk inmates must bunk in common areas instead of in beds in cells, the population of the jail this year has been consistently below its rated capacity of 1,332.

The officials in charge aren't the only ones who defend the Prince George's jail. Sharon Weidenfeld, a private investigator in Annapolis who works with inmates throughout Maryland, said the level of violence is greater overall in state prisons, like those in Jessup, Cumberland, Hagerstown, Baltimore and the Eastern Shore. "It's not a problem that's exclusive to the Prince George's jail," she said.

That's sobering and a good reason why we should wish Webb well in choosing nationwide prison reform as a signature issue.

My e-mail: robertmccartney@washpost.com

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