A Montgomery County grand jury that investigated security problems at the county jail for nearly 10 months "strongly recommended" yesterday that County Executive Sidney Kramer search for a solution to jail crowding and also said future grand juries should monitor the jail more closely.
The grand jury released a report that revealed no specific deficiencies but recommended grand juries make unannounced inspections and, for the first time, monitor the inmate population quarterly.
Officials at the Montgomery County Detention Center said yesterday that 552 inmates were being held at the institution designed for 300. The grand jury report was undertaken after a jail visitor smuggled a blowtorch and a gun inside in an escape attempt Oct. 21.
"The grand jury realized quickly there was nobody to indict," State's Attorney Andrew L. Sonner said during a news conference with jury foreman Dennis Cassidy and Corrections Director Calvin A. Lightfoot.
"They quickly saw the investigation would not take them to any criminal indictments," Sonner said.
Understaffing was the source for a variety of problems, Lightfoot, Cassidy and Sonner stressed. "I think it's safe to say we found the jail understaffed -- and the reason was budgeting," said Cassidy. "People were working too hard and too long." Cassidy said understaffing caused low morale at the jail but "did not compromise security."
The report was essentially ready about four months ago but the grand jury, required by county law to review the Detention Center annually, decided to withhold its findings to meet with Lightfoot, who was appointed by Kramer on May 22. Kramer did not reappoint the previous director, Gary Blake.
After several meetings with Lightfoot that were described as successful, the grand jury decided not to enumerate deficiencies that are now being addressed, Cassidy said.
According to a grand jury report issued in December in response to the attempted escape, serious deficiencies in security existed at the jail because of understaffing. Immediately after the October incident, 17 correctional officers were hired and a metal detector was placed in the visitor area.
Kramer was not available for comment yesterday. But Lightfoot said six correctional officers and five mental health counselors have been added since May. Staffing assignments also have been adjusted to tighten security, he said, citing, for example, an additional correction officer who monitors the visitor area.
Lightfoot said the Detention Center is conducting an internal investigation on staffing needs and a similar study has been undertaken by the National Institute of Corrections. Both reports will be ready in about three weeks, he said.
Lightfoot was complimentary of the grand jury report and said recommendations for unannounced visits and quarterly reports would help the Corrections Department. Previous grand jury inspections have always been planned, he said, and no population reports were supplied.
The grand jury also asked the County Council to consider legislation that would allow additional staff to be hired whenever the jail population rose above a ratio of one staff member to four inmates.