A story in yesterday's Maryland Weekly, concerning Dr. Weldon McPhail, head of the Prince George's Department of Corrections, included a statement relating to the training and education of deputies in the Prince George's Sheriff's Department. That statement appeared in a 1977 report of a Prince George's grand jury but was late expunged by Circuit Court Judge James H. Taylor. According to Assistant State's Attorney Ron Cooper, the remarks were considered to be "inappropriate" and were deleted.
In an effort to remove the operations of the county jail from the political arena, Prince George's County recently shifted the responsibility for the jail from the sheriff's department to the new Department of Corrections.
To head the new department, the county hired Dr. Weldon McPhail, an eight-year veteran of the D.C. Department of Corrections and an advocate of turning the county "lock up" into a detention center with a substantial rehabilitation program. McPhail was sworn in last week as the new head of the department after a six-month period as deputy director and later acting director.
The previous keeper of the jail, Sheriff Don E. Ansell, came to the job via the Maryland State Troopers and a private detective agency; he received a college degree in corrections last year. McPhail comes to his new position with a background in prison work and a doctorate in systems management.
It is this educational and professional background that has strongly influenced McPhail's own philosophy on prison management, a philosophy which, he said, puts the emphasis on prison environment.
"Sure you have to have a balanced security in jail," McPhail said. "But we have to increased professionalism. We have to get a program established that stresses the psychology of prisons, of the sociology of how they (prisoners) get there."
Or, as one member of McPhail's staff said, "While we keep society safe, we also have a responsibility for the inmate detainees."
The 34-year-old doctor of philosophy also holds a master's degree in education. As an employe in the D.C. Department of Corrections he designed programs for inmates to "reactivate intellectual curiosity and desire to learn," he coordinated work and college programs for young offenders that would "alter anti-social behavior and provide vocational and academic skills required for adequate community adjustment" and finally, he organized and implemented staff training programs.
The contrast between McPhil and his predecessor is also apparent in their differing styles of office management. Ansell, always in full-dress regalia as county sheriff, surrounded himself with uniformed aides. His office was filled with monitoring devices, his desk with detailed notations of prison counts and jail rules, his manner in dealing with his officers brisk and to the point.
McPhail, on the other hand, wears street clothes and has no uniformed staff hovering in the anteroom. He uses the same office, but has only one television monitor, which is turned off. His desk is cleared save for a small bust and a few papers. Law books fill nearby bookshelves.
McPhail, soft-spoken and at ease with broad discussion on the philosophical implications of corrections, doesn't yet concentrate on jail population numbers and systems. McPhail seems more interested in discussing educational programs like a Jaycees project to get photography into the jail than in visiting hours and procedures.
He avoids making comparisons to the pasts, but when talking about his 118 security guards, it seems he has little choice.
"We have an ongoing and mandatory "training program on the state level," McPhail said. "But a vast majority of the people who were here during Ansell's time need it - for some reason or another they never got it."
"But within one year all of our people should be trained. We want to raise the degree of professionalism. We've been able to come in and stabilize the guards. We work closely together and try to emphasize the professional aspects of corrections."
The key word with McPhail is professionalism. Through added funds in the corrections budget, McPhail hired an additional person to work with the one staffer providing therapy in alcohol and drug abuse. He has hired a physical education instructor and said he has expanded the use of the gymnasium to 10 or 12 hours a day.
Not only a person for county offenders with sentences of up to 18 months, in jail is also a "holding tank" for a weekend drunk driver, a casualty of a bar room incident, a once-in-a-lifetime petty offender.
McPhail, however, does not like to talk about the "cruder" aspects of jail life and offered no immediate solutions for the chronic overcrowding at the jail that has been the object of inmante protesters and lawsuits in the past.
There are currently 325 inmantes in a jail built for 200. When asked about the overcrowding, he replied, "We're not one of the heavy overcrowded jails in the country" and adds that "the state is taking a number of folks for us. We have to improvise sometime. If we can find a place to put a bed, we'll put it there."
McPhail said he is hopeful the county will add a new wing to the jail with an additional 300 beds.
McPhail also doesn't like to talk about security programs. Occasionally (and some inmates say regularly) drugs are smuggled into the cellblocks. "When we discover we have problems, we tighten up the reins," he said.
Then he adds quietly, "You know, shake downs. Actually, that's off the record." When told that most jails have a similar procedure for dealing with such problems, he looks less troubled and says, "Oh, alright, you can say that."
When asked about "isolation cells," he talks about "systems." "There is a need for (isolation) when you have an intractable person," he said. "We have to temporarily use a system (to isolate the inmate), for his own good and for the good of the others."
These are not things McPhail likes to talk about. He changes the subject and talks about a "refind" prisoner classification system.
He likes the idea of refining, improving and sophisticating the prison system. And, through his new programs, he seems to be heading the jail away from the time when deputies "had a constitutional right to be fat," according to Ansell, and were "undereducated and untrained," according to a 1977 grand jury report. Instead, McPhail would like to create an atmosphere in which, he said, "positive influences are stressed."
"There is no longer the fear of the guillotine over your head," said one staffer. "Now if you do well, you get a nice word or a letter of commendation. McPhail is fair to everybody and is respected by the officers and personnel for that fairness.
"The jail is not a good place to work, but he's good to work for," said the staff member, who said he wished to remain anonymous.
Another said he now "enjoys coming to work in the morning."
McPhail said he senses this "good atmosphere."
"You know I walk the halls, I talk to people, I meet with the population on a regular basis. That doesn't mean you are 100 percent successful, but if we can get the problems early, that's all that counts."