Prince George's County Corrections Department Director Samuel F. Saxton, who has come under fire recently for two escapes in two weeks from the county's new, so-called escapeproof jail, defended his handling of the detention center yesterday to County Council members.
In a voice sometimes rising and breaking in anger, Saxton admitted there had been problems that he attributed to "human error," such as a guard watching television May 26 when two inmates climbed a fence in the facility's first jailbreak.
But, Saxton said, improvements have been made recently to prevent future escapes.
"I cannot in good conscience say that will never happen again," Saxton said. "The worst prisons all over have had escapes. We have indeed learned from those experiences. The faults we have had are correctable."
The second escape occurred on Saturday, when a female inmate, who was incorrectly put on a work detail, walked away after the driver of a truckload of prisoners stopped for coffee. The escapes were the latest of problems that have dogged Saxton's nearly four-year-old administration in recent months.
In April, Saxton submitted his resignation after he was criticized by council member Sue V. Mills for the jail's policy of mandatory overtime for prison guards. Saxton withdrew his resignation after County Executive Parris Glendening promised 27 additional correctional officers to supplement the 178 already on duty.
The investigation that followed the first escape found that during the break, a previously faulty automatic alarm system had sounded. There was no guard patrolling the outside of the jail, but the officer at the control station alerted a second guard to check the area. The guard on duty, Saxton said, was watching television at the time of the escape and later incorrectly said all inmates in the housing unit were present.
Saxton said that in addition to the 27 additional correctional officers, most of whom are already on duty, new measures include adding wire mesh to the inside fence to prohibit anyone from climbing the fence, adding sensor alarms around the housing units and improving the automatic alarm system.
The sheriff's department also is providing deputies to patrol the area outside the jail until all new correctional officers are on duty, and dogs will patrol the yard.
Saxton said he will develop a "code red" system to notify all law enforcement people immediately of jail escapes, and he is installing a hot line to inform area residents. County officials could not say how much the improvements will cost.
Saxton's new security measures drew mixed reviews from County Council members and prison guards. Council Chairwoman Hilda Pemberton said she was satisfied with plans to improve jail security.
However, correctional officers union attorney and spokesman Eugene M. Newman said the union would like to see 10 to 20 more officers hired in addition to the 27 promised by Glendening, and more than one officer assigned to a housing unit when the inmate population exceeds 48.
Council member Mills, who asked Saxton for the meeting, said she would monitor the situation.
"A lot of corrections need to be made and he promised to make them," she said.