Prince George's County Corrections Director Samuel F. Saxton, a retired U.S. Marine major who served through three wars, is under fire again, fighting now to keep the county's $43 million, state-of-the-art detention center from becoming a political embarrassment.
Six months ago the county's "new-generation" correctional center opened amid hopes that the years of bad publicity generated by the turn-of-the-century jail would end.
But in recent months, Saxton has faced increasing criticism from his correctional officers' union, the media and an outspoken county councilwoman who blames him for a string of mistakes that have contributed to three escapes since the center opened.
The scrutiny intensified this week when County Executive Parris Glendening dispatched two top-ranking administrators from other county offices to the Corrections Department to ensure that security measures were implemented to prevent a recurrence of Tuesday's escape.
Glendening denies that the move means he has lost confidence in Saxton. But the county executive said that the two outside administrators would remain at the correctional center "until the problem is solved."
Saxton said it is too soon to tell whether the temporary reassignment of county Personnel Director Michael Knapp and Labor Commissioner Frank Stegman means that Glendening's confidence in him has been shaken. "If he is sending those folks over here as liaisons, then I don't have any problems with that," Saxton said. "If it is something other than that, I would have a problem."
Many political flanks have been left exposed by the escapes and unrest at the Detention Center.
When it was built, the jail was the largest capital expenditure ever made by the county. Although the county leadership squirms when prisoners keep breaking out, there were no indications that Saxton was on his way out.
Glendening chose Saxton in 1983 after a national search for a director to run a troubled jail plagued by a series of escapes and sexual assaults among inmates. Three years before, there had been a jail riot and bitter correctional officers' strike that left 121 officers without jobs.
Saxton brought impressive credentials and experience to the job, including citations as correctional officer of the year and years of running military jails in Vietnam, Okinawa and at Camp Pendleton in California.
The decision to build a new jail and close down the old one had already been made as a result of a federal court order. In 1984, voters approved a bond referendum to finance a new facility. Saxton, after looking at new jails across the country, sold the county on the idea of building a new generation jail.
The concept combines the latest philosophy in corrections with an architectural design holding that inmates should be treated humanely, and most of them upon arrival should be given full privileges as long as they follow strict rules.
By most accounts, when the county moved into the new detention center Feb. 28, it was too soon. The new facility's phone system did not work, kinks had not been worked out of the sophisticated eletronic security system.
The situation was exacerbated by an almost immediate influx of new inmates that put the jail months ahead of estimated population. And that was compounded by a shortage of officers, which was the center of controversy in April when Saxton tendered his resignation after County Council member Sue V. Mills criticized his management of the Detention Center. "I would love to have had 90 more days to play with this place" before moving in, Saxton said.
But Mills, who has been Saxton's most vocal critic, said that "such excuses don't work. As a director, maybe he has delegated and trusted too much."
It was one of Saxton's section heads who apparently failed to expedite the purchase of wire mesh fencing, a failure that contributed to the escape Tuesday night of inmate Michael Mack Thompson and the attempted escape of three others. Thompson was captured a day later.
Two days after inmates used an identical method to escape from the Detention Center on May 26, Saxton had said that the installation of wire mesh on perimeter fences and outdoor recreation wall would prevent a recurrence. But the special fencing was never ordered.
The escapes came during strained negotiations on a new contract between the county and the 180-member Prince George's Correctional Officers Association. On Thursday, the group overwhelmingly rejected a proposal that would have replaced the contract that expired June 30.
Saxton and his supporters blame leaks to the media about operational problems at the jail on disgruntled union members who want to pressure the administration to agree to demands for rotating shifts, an end to mandatory overtime and classification as protective service workers. But Frank Murphy, president of the association, dismissed the allegation . "I don't think a majority of officers has confidence in him," Murphy said.
Federal and national corrections officials said that most new-generation jails experience problems for several months after they open.
It takes some time for officers to get used to the direct superivision concept in new-generation jails, the officials said, where there are no bars or protective glass separating them from inmates. And, they said, the problem of crowding, which usually builds over months at new jails, hit the Prince George's Detention Center immediately.
In the wake of the recent negative publicity, Saxton said there will be some shakeup of upper-level staff at the detention center and disciplinary actions taken against officers whose negligence may have contributed to the recent escapes. But Saxton said he has no plans to leave the $62,000-a-year post.