EMMET SULLIVAN is the latest in a long line of federal judges to be outraged by signs of gross negligence, incompetence and possible corruption in the D.C. Department of Corrections. Last week the furious judge of the U.S. District Court ordered the Justice Department to investigate the way D.C. prison inmates are classified, housed, transferred and furloughed. He had good reasons for doing so.

Judge Sullivan learned that the department had no records covering a portion of twice-convicted murderer Leo Gonzales Wright's most recent stay at the Lorton Correctional facility. He earlier had sentenced Leo Wright to life without parole and ordered him to federal prison for his brutal murder of human rights lawyer Bettina Pruckmayr. Despite the judge's directive, however, Leo Wright was sent back to Lorton for nearly three years. The judge called this week's hearing to learn why his order was not obeyed. He wasn't satisfied with the explanation of city lawyers.

Again, the judge's skepticism was well placed, because Leo Wright has a record of besting the system. For instance, he should never have been paroled from Lorton in 1993. And he should have been reincarcerated for several parole violations prior to Ms. Pruckmayr's murder in 1995. In both cases, however, "missing" disciplinary records combined with staff errors and negligence allowed him to leave and stay out of prison.

Federal probers should review the Inspector General's 1999 investigation into Leo Wright's release and actions prior to killing Ms. Pruckmayr. The report contains this observation by a veteran legal instruments examiner at Lorton:

"[She] stated that she has heard of Case Managers, Corrections Officers, Psychologists and others being paid by inmates to remove documents from inmate files, even though she has never witnessed it. [She] has witnessed inmates themselves trying to remove documents from files while reviewing them."

On Friday Corrections communications chief Darryl Madden reported that since October 1998 Corrections has taken 16 disciplinary actions for cause against legal instrument examiners, case managers and their supervisors for neglect of duty in inmate classifications. Leo Wright had reasons to love Lorton. A federal probe should learn why.