THE SAD DEATH OF Donald L. Ferguson has illuminated several reasons why the Fairfax County jail needs a new kind of management. First, consider what happened to Mr. Ferguson, a 28-year-old construction worker, after he was arrested and jailed Dec. 2 for failing to pay a $50 fine. According to an official report, Mr. Ferguson went into acute alcohol withdrawal on Dec. 4. The jail physician recommended medication and restraints. Mr. Ferguson was not given all the medication. Nor was he taken promptly to a local hospital. Instead, he was shackled in handcuffs and leg irons in a padded cell for nearly two days, without being helped to food, water or toilet facilities. On Dec. 6 he was committed to the state mental hospital in Staunton. He died of kidney failure there on Dec. 8.

Obviously, Mr. Ferguson was denied the proper treatment that might have saved his life. Sheriff James D. Swinson has acknowledged that his staff made "some mistakes" that should not be repeated. But he compounded the wrong by telling a Post reporter that the case had been blown out of proportion. "Going through the door of my jail is not a ticket to eternal life," he said. "People have died there before and people will die there again."

The only thing the public -- and the jail staff -- can conclude from that incredible remark is that the sheriff puts little value on any one inmatehs life. That may not be a fair summary of his attitude; for all his blunt-spoken and controversial ways, Mr. Swinson has done quite well over the years. Recently, though, there have been mounting signs of trouble -- various abuses of authority by some deputies, favoritism and dissension in the ranks, and two other jail-related deaths within six months. All this, plus his performance in the Ferguson case, suggests that after 16 years, Mr. Swinson should be ready to retire.

There is a larger problem, summed up in the sheriff's phrase, "my jail." That term is all too accurate. Under Virginia's constitution, sheriffs are independently elected officials. By law, they control the jails. Though Fairfax County has financed its new jail and pays about half of its operating costs, the county board has little real control over Mr. Swinson and his deputies. Thus, in response to public protest in the Ferguson case, the board could only launch a study of the jail's management, with no assurance that it will make any difference.

That system goes back to the ear when a sheriff was the chief, or only, local law-enforcement officer. In some small, rurall counties, that may still be the case. In urban counties such as Fairfax, it is archaic and potentially anarchic to leave correctional institutions and policy beyond the reach of the genral local government. Unfortunately, virginia's general Assembly is probably decades away from prying the jails out of the sheriffs' domains statewide or even giving counties a choice. The immediate question in Fairfax, then, is whether either party dwill select a candidate for sheriff this year who combines professional ability to manage with more concern for the well-being of those who come under his jurisdiction.