Every year, the Department of Corrections selects between 900 and 1,000 recruits, sends them off for six weeks of training and hopes they make it so they can be assigned to the D.C. jail or one of the department's seven prisons at Lorton.
The qualifications are few. They must be at least 21 years old. They should have a high school diploma or equivalency degree, although that is not a rigid requirement. They cannot be drug users and they can't have a felony conviction.
But the department's handful of background investigators have too many applications to do extensive checking, officials say. They send fingerprints to the FBI, run a computer check for criminal records and mail form letters to previous employers. Beyond that, they depend on the truthfulness of the applicants.
Sometimes the applicants lie.
Roger Dawson, for example. When he filled out D.C. personnel form 171 in October, noting that he wanted to become a correctional officer, he omitted any mention of three convictions since 1987 -- having sex with a minor and two theft offenses -- and his continuing probation.
Dawson, 31, said he did list two convictions under the old Federal Youth Corrections Act, knowing they could not be held against him; as permitted under this law on crimes committed by young adults, the convictions were expunged after Dawson completed four years in prison in 1981.
On Feb. 26, along with a host of other recruits, Dawson was sworn in as a probationary officer in the Department of Corrections and enrolled at the department's training academy. A month later, on March 27, Dawson was arrested again, this time on a felony charge of having sex with an 8-year-old girl. Now awaiting trial, he is being held at the Modular Facility in Lorton, where he trained during his month as a probationary officer. He has pleaded not guilty.
Department officials said they did not know why Dawson's record did not turn up during the background check. Benny O. Hodges, the department's associate director for administration, said he was certain that Dawson's name was run through the National Crime Information Computer. "I would say that is something that wouldn't happen again in 50 years. NCIC is the best system available," Hodges said.
Hodges said no real harm was done because Dawson "never made it out of the training academy. See, you're not employed until you go through the whole probationary process, and that's one year." He said the department was still doing some checking on Dawson at the time of his arrest.
Seeking Out Improvements
Corrections officials also have rejected some people whose criminal records were picked up. Nonetheless, they said in interviews, they believe the system needs improvement. Right now, the department has no central registry to determine whether an applicant has applied before, was previously rejected or was fired from a Corrections job.
Walter B. Ridley, Hodges's boss and the director of Corrections, said the department is developing a cross-reference file to keep tabs on such things. "We're the first to admit that there are a lot of things that haven't been brought on line at Corrections," Ridley said. "We're moving as rapidly as we can to bring them on line."
The Dawson case is one illustration of how the hiring process sometimes goes awry. There are other examples, according to officers interviewed:
A former probationary officer at the jail, fired last year for coming to work "incoherent," was allowed to return to the department last month and is enrolled at the training academy.
A former officer at the D.C. jail, forced to resign because of suspected drug dealing with an inmate, reapplied and was rehired last year. In April, during his probationary employment period, he was fired in a second drug-related incident.
A former jail officer, in her reapplication, omitted any mention of being arrested on drug charges. When she came before the Department of Corrections's interview panel in March, three officers from the jail were serving on the panel that week. They recognized her and alerted a background investigator. Subsequently, she was rejected.
Asked about some of these examples, Hodges disputed the notion that the system has serious flaws. "If only three slip by, I think we did an excellent job," he said.
Until eight months ago, when Ridley and Hodges set up a formal recruiting office, background checks were left to the department's five-member warrant squad -- which had to squeeze in the checks while serving warrants and picking up parole violators.
But the new office also is overwhelmed. The background investigators find it impossible to do a thorough job on the 150 applications that come to the office every two months, officials say.
If they had time, the background investigators would have a lot of information to look at. They have the applicant's 171 form from the D.C. personnel office, which includes basic information; a medical examination form; a urinalysis questionnaire; an authorization allowing the department to request any criminal records; and a 20-page Personal History Statement, which asks about previous employment, drug use and criminal involvement.
Roger Dawson was working as a security guard when he applied to the D.C. government for three different jobs in October. The ambulance corps rejected his application. The police department interviewed him for a crossing guard post but never contacted him further. In November, the Department of Corrections invited him to come to its Grimke headquarters at 1923 Vermont Ave. NW.
Among other things, he filled out the Personal History Statement, lying about his criminal record. He also had to submit a urine sample, which didn't concern him because he had never used drugs. It was negative. A month later, he received his letter of acceptance.
'We Want to Be Perfect'
Dawson reported to the department's training academy on March 5. After two weeks of classes, he and seven classmates were sent to the Maximum Security Facility at Lorton for a firsthand look. Almost immediately, he ran into a lieutenant who recognized him from Dawson's days as an inmate at Lorton's Youth Center.
The lieutenant led Dawson to a captain's office. "The lieutenant here tells me you were in the Youth Center," Dawson remembers the captain saying. "Tell me about that."
Dawson said, "I was there. I served my time under the Federal Youth Corrections Act. I did my time."
But the matter didn't end there. On March 22, he was ordered to meet a recruitment officer, who wanted to know about the Youth Act convictions. Dawson explained that his record had been expunged. The officer wanted proof; Dawson obtained a computer printout from Superior Court showing the deletion. The officer was satisfied, Dawson said.
Five days later, Dawson was arrested on the new sex charge. That night, he was in a cell at the D.C. jail. After Corrections officials became aware of his arrest, they fired him. As a probationary officer, Dawson had no right of appeal. He received his last check while incarcerated.
Corrections officials consider the Dawson case a fluke.
"We want to be perfect," Hodges said. "We're working toward perfection. We are going to be perfect, but right now we're 99.9 percent . . . . Come back in a year and we'll be perfect."