Gov. Harry Hughes said tonight that state corrections commissioner Edwin R. Goodlander has used "poor judgment" in not investigating warnings that prisoners were engaged in possible criminal activity while assigned to work-release programs in Baltimore.
Hughes, emerging from a 2 1/2-hour meeting with Goodlander and State Corrections Chief Gordon C. Kamka, also announced that he has asked state police to investigate whether the two officials, as well as their subordinates, acted negligently by taking no action after learning that the work-release program was being abused.
A grand jury Thursday indicted 27 prisoners on charges ranging from escape to drug trafficking to murder. The indictments resulted from a six-week investigation by the Baltimore police of the prisoners' activities.
Hughes, expressing "very deep concern" about the matter, added that he is prepared to dismiss department officials "if the investigation reveals that someone is not doing their job."
The governor's announcement capped a day of political furor -- including press conferences by Kamka and Goodlander, denunciations of the two officials by legislators and top-level briefings -- over what has become the most serious political crisis to rock the already-embattled state prison system.
Meanwhile, the Baltimore grand jury that returned the indictments against the inmates is now investigating whether state corrections officials knew about, but failed to halt, work-release abuses, it was learned.
Hughes said he has order his investigators to cooperate fully with city police. His characterization of the state police probe -- "a wide open investigation, all the way to the top of the department" -- was significantly different from one outlined earlier in the day at another press conference held by Kamka and Goodlander.
There, state police spokesman Bill Clark said the investigation would concentrate on conditions and staff at the Brockbridge Correctional Camp at Jessup, where the 27 inmates were housed.
The change came after Hughes had closely questioned Goodlander, during the 2 1/2-hour meeting, about reports that subordinates warned him at least twice the Jessup work-release inmates were involved in "questionable activities," while they were supposed to be attending college classes and jobs in Baltimore.
Based on Hughes' comments, interviews with Brockbridge employes and with Goodlander, here is the sequence of warnings that Goodlander received from William E. Lamb, the state work-release director.
The warnings began last fall, four months before Baltimore police began the probe that produced yesterday's indictments. At the time, Lamb told Goodlander he suspected that some inmates were skipping classes and not going to work, as assigned. Goodlander said he told Lamb to notify Baltimore police if he was concerned about criminal activity, and did not check further.
Then, in December, Brockbridge Superintendent Michael A. Menefee and Lamb set up surveillance of the work-release inmates who went daily to Baltimore, and found that they were not regularly attending their classes and jobs. Lamb notified Goodlander again of his concerns, this time in a memo.
Goodlander said he recalls that the memo did not contain evidence of criminal violations, although he said he assumed at the time that Lamb suspected that inmates of criminal activity. Goodlander said he did not consider the matter serious enough to order an investigation.
Instead, he halted the surveillance, calling it an improper activity for guards, and tightened the check-in procedures for the college students and workers. Again, he said, he told Lamb to notify Baltimore police if he suspected criminal activity, but did not follow up the warnings himself.
Looking back on the sequence of events today, Goodlander said he still does not see anything about the warnings from Lamb "that seemed any more significant than anything else I hear. I talk to 40 or 50 people in the course of a day. We have one walk-away a day from minimum release facilities."
The fact that Goodlander did not consider the warnings unusual, even in retrospect, underscores the complex problems plaguing corrections in Maryland. The state's prison system is under a court order to ease overcrowding, and officials have responded by trying to move inmates more quickly through the system, from maximum- and medium-security prisons to minimum-security facilities like Brockbridge and then back into the community.
Still, officials have failed to ease overcrowding as much as the court has ordered. Meanwhile, legislators and local officials have denounced the policy of moving inmates back to the community more quickly and have been especially critical of Kamka's emphasis on community-based centers as opposed to more secure prisons.
Kamka, who readily acknowledges the weakness in the system, responded at a press conference this morning to renewed legislative criticism of his policies. "It's no secret that we have people in many institutions who shouldn't be there. But we have a finite number of beds and a finite number of prisoners. Everyone has to be somewhere," he said.
In the next five months, the state is expected to open two new prisons that will add 900 medium- and maximum-security beds to the system, significantly easing overcrowding, Kamka said.
He and Hughes both defended their corrections philosophies in the face of criticism arising from yesterday's indictments. They said the incident raises questions only about the management of the system.