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The man who shut the troubled men’s jail in Baltimore has a lot more on his agenda

Officer Patricia Burrington walks across the top tier of Housing Unit A East at the Women’s Correctional Institute as Jessup, Md., after locking an inmate in her cell. (Andre Chung/For The Washington Post)

Stephen T. Moyer was working as a deputy police chief in Florida when he heard about a jail scandal in his home state of Maryland involving a gang leader who operated a violent drug enterprise from behind bars.

Moyer was incensed, even a bit embarrassed. He thought drastic action was needed.

So when he was tapped by Gov. Larry Hogan (R) to become Maryland’s secretary of public safety and correctional services, he knew where he would focus his reform efforts: the agency’s personnel system.

The way Moyer sees it, gang leader Tavon White’s elaborate underground operation, which included sex, money and the smuggling of drugs and cellphones, would not have worked without the help of state corrections officers.

“The way you attack corruption is you look at who you are hiring, and our hiring process wasn’t good,” Moyer said, noting that dozens of the 44 people indicted in the Black Guerrilla Family case were corrections officers, and four of them gave birth to children fathered by White. “We’ve hired some bad people, and I have to figure out who the bad people are.”

The new secretary wants to eliminate 63 of the prison system’s 139 human-resources positions, consolidating individual staffs at each prison facility into one office to ensure uniform hiring and firing practices.

He already joined Hogan in closing the notorious men’s jail at the Baltimore City Detention Center, the state-run jail where White’s gang flourished until the arrests in 2013.

Moyer’s plans include enhanced training of corrections officers; exploring changes to the state’s use of solitary confinement, parole and probation; and placing a greater focus on drug treatment and mental health, which advocates say is sorely needed.

His efforts come as elected officials and policymakers across the country are examining ways to save money, including by reducing recidivism, and exploring how to better serve the needs of a population that is aging and has a host of mental and physical challenges.

Special report: America’s aging prison population

“When programs don’t work, it’s usually two reasons — and it’s the same reasons I’m dealing with right now: You don’t have the right people in place, and you don’t have the right programs,” Moyer said.

Moyer said the prison system has one of the largest personnel departments in state government, even though the 11,000-employee agency isn’t the state’s largest.

He wants to create a centralized human-resources department where polygraph tests are a given and criminal background checks are thorough. At some state facilities, he said, such security checks were not being completed.

“You can’t do it that way and have the outcome that you want,” Moyer said. “If you are not hiring the right people, it’s almost impossible to put good programs in place.”

Del. Erek L. Barron (D-Prince George’s), a lawyer and member of the Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council, which is tasked with finding ways to reduce Maryland’s prison population, said that Moyer’s focus on human resources is warranted, given the lack of professionalism and “a culture that promotes corruption.”

But he has some concerns about the secretary’s priorities, given the extreme situations that inmates have experienced in state facilities. Moyer’s approach “does not address the pervasively deficient healthcare provided detainees, including basic medical services and mental health treatment,” Barron said.

Elizabeth Alexander, a lawyer based in Washington who worked on a federal suit over the treatment of Maryland prisoners, said she found inmates with diabetes and HIV with incomplete medical records, which led to insufficient treatment. Alexander applauded Moyer and Hogan for moving forward with closing the men’s jail, the oldest part of the detention center complex, but said the still-operational women’s jail is just as deplorable.

“Based on my inspection in the last few years, both are unfit for occupants,” she said.

Hogan closes scandal-plagued jail

Charles H. Dorsey III, deputy public defender for the state, said he understands why Moyer wants to focus on hiring and firing as a way of changing the culture.

“Right now in Baltimore City Detention Center, they can get drugs and get high in the jail,” Dorsey said. “It’s imperative that it is a clean, drug-free environment. Otherwise, it’s just like being on the street. You want people of integrity there, not people bringing in drugs or bought off by the inmates.”

Advocates, many of them having met with Moyer, said they are impressed with his approach to problems that have plagued the system, a strategy that includes reviewing best practices found in other states.

For example, Moyer said he was intrigued by a recent decision in Chicago to hire a psychologist to run the Cook County Jail. He also said more needs to be done with inpatient and out­patient mental health.

“When you don’t have the capacity to serve people with mental health challenges, a lot of them end up in the criminal justice system,” Moyer said. “And they really need mental health treatment more than they need to be behind a fence.”

David Fathi, director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, said he was pleased to learn that Moyer is taking steps to review the state’s use of solitary confinement. Prison-reform advocates have tried unsuccessfully for years to get data about when and how often the punishment is handed out.

“There are times when you need segregation, but it needs to be measured,” said Moyer, who spent part of his career with Maryland State Police, detailed to the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice. “It needs to be monitored better.”

Moyer, who started his job on Jan. 21, brought in the National Institute of Corrections to provide training and complete a comprehensive study of state practices, including solitary confinement. Its recommendations are to be sent to Moyer in December.

Moyer grew up in Harford County, the son of a retired state police major and former Harford County sheriff. He rose through the ranks of the state police, retiring as a lieutenant colonel after serving for 24 years. He then became head of security at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore before heading to Sarasota, Fla.

Sarasota Police Chief Bernadette DiPino, a former police chief in Ocean City, said she was familiar with Moyer from his time with the state police. He also worked for the Sarasota police department for nearly two years.

“He has a reputation as a person you can count on to help, not necessarily to fix things that are broken but to provide progressive modern strategies to problems,” DiPino said, noting his work on community policing and an audit of the department.

Moyer considers his mentor to have been Bishop Robinson, the longest-serving public safety and corrections secretary in Maryland who died in 2014. The pair worked together at the state Department of Juvenile Justice, where Robinson asked him to become acting deputy secretary to address problems at one of its juvenile boot camps.

“Kids were being handcuffed, thrown to the ground, kicked and punched by juvenile supervisors,” Moyer said.

They shut down the program.

Moyer went back to the state police but returned to Juvenile Justice after the U.S. Justice Department filed a civil rights complaint against the state over how several of its juvenile detention centers were being run. The federal government eventually found the state in compliance.

In addition to weeding out corruption and improving services at the state’s corrections facilities, Moyer wants each facility to qualify for accreditation by the American Corrections Association. Four facilities in the state are accredited.

He said he recently told his staff that “it’s a new day. . . . Change will occur, or there will be other leadership changes.”