The resignation of Gordon Kamka, Maryland's top prison official, may have been foreshadowed on the very day in 1979 when Kamka stood in the spotlight by Gov. Harry Hughes for the announcement that he was the new governor's first cabinet appointee.
Kamka, taking even Hughes off guard, bluntly announced that a new prison "may not be necessary" to relieve overcrowding in Maryland's bursting-at-the-seams prison system. "The problem in Maryland is not that we don't have enough prison space," Kamka asserted in a radical departure from past policy. "We have too many prisoners."
Those words on that first day, one friend said yesterday, "were probably the beginning of the end."
The end finally came Monday, following a public outcry set off by the indictment of 27 Brockbridge pre-release center inmates who had been assigned to go to jobs and classes, but instead allegedly dealt in everything from drugs to murder.
But the indictments were less a cause for the resignation than a convenient excuse for the inevitable exit of a man whose deeply felt idealism was never matched by his administrative ability. In the last few months even Hughes, who had brought Kamka in championed his policies and taken the political heat that that engendered, had given up on his combative corrections chief. The two men for weeks had been discussing when -- not if -- Kamka should resign, according to sources, though it was always Kamka who brought up the subject.
"Harry Hughes would have wanted to let him go regardless of Brockbridge," said a source who had close dealings with both men. "But short of something as dramatic as this, I don't know if it would have happened."
"I think everyone understood that Gordon had become a liability. It was a problem from the beginning. Gordon had a habit of shooting from the hip and making statements before he had thought them out."
Indeed, a major reason for Kamka's ineffectiveness was that Kamka, the man, had become as much of an issue as Kamka, the corrections chief. His combative personality and his controversial policies had become so hopelessly intertwined that the animosity toward the man was spilling over into the already volatile debate over what to do about the state's prison system.
"There was something about Gordon that could alienate everyone in a room as soon as he walked in," complained Sen. Victor Crawford (D-Montgomery), chairman of the Senate budget subcommittee that oversees prisons. "There was a certain emanation of arrogance and superiority that he probably wasn't even aware of."
In the House Appropriations committee hearing room, where the legislators' hostility to Kamka was apparent, the image of the prison chief, red-faced and biting out his answers through clenched teeth, was a common one.
Friends, however, describe his style as feisty, self-assured and determined, and one insisted that part of his problem in the good-old-boy world of Annapolis is that he never became "one of the boys. He's not the kind of guy to get in there and have a beer with the fellas to relax."
One was more likely to see Kamka in jogging togs running near Baltimore's Downtown Racquet Club or through the brick streets of Annapolis to ease the ever-present tensions of his job.
Kamka spent most of his time and efforts in his two-year tenure as corrections chief crusading for a radical change in state prison policy, which for years had looked toward construction of more medium and maximum security institutions as the solution to overcrowding. Kamka instead contended that the state was incarcerating far too many prisoners, convicted of minor crimes, in high-security prisons. The answer, he said, was alternative community programs and better use of the parole system.
But an inherited federal court order to ease overcrowding and his determination to resolve the problem without, new construction just did not mix. More and more prisoners were released from the system, and still the overcrowding persisted. In the process, the legislature, the public, then his own staff and finally Harry Hughes became disaffected.
It is ironic, Kamka's defenders and detractors said, that a man who spent his full tenure in the Hughes administration fighting for progressive prison reform probably did more to taint the cause than to help it.
"Gordon gave correctional reform a bad name," said Del. Timothy Maloney (D-Prince George's), one of his sternest critics. "I believe a lot in what he says. For example, it's absurd to hear people saying that because of what hppened at Brockbridge, work release is a bad program. What was bad was the way he administered it and the way he dealt with the legislature on the issue. He has set back correctional reform in Maryland a few years. The only way we can achieve his objectives now is if we do it without calling it reform.
Kamka came to the statewide corrections post from a six-year stint as warden of the problem-plagued Baltimore city jail, where he had won a reputation as a progressive but tough administrator, who once had quickly quelled a wildcat walkout by jail guards.
But he had never administered a statewide system, and in the end, according to friends and foes alike, it was lack of management skills that made him so vulnerable. Indeed, Hughes made clear in announcing Kamka's resignation that the problems at Brockbridge raise questions about the department's management, not its policies.
The real problem, according to Maloney, was that "Gordon couldn't manage the philosophy he espoused. In that job, you gotta be able to count heads and knock heads. And Gordon just didn't do either very well."