Since 1993, I have had the opportunity to visit hundreds of prisons, jails, juvenile facilities and community corrections facilities as the executive director of the American Correctional Association. Having served more than 19 years in the Arlington County, Va., sheriff's office, I know the many challenges and difficulties that come with the operation of a detention facility and the management of inmates in a large urban center.
Thousands of offenders are processed every year. For some, crime and destruction is a way of life. Many are professional criminals who thrive on the corruption of others. They are well-practiced and will target anyone, and they are very good at what they do. They pose one of the many challenges that administrators, wardens and sheriffs face in trying to manage correctional institutions.
Correctional officers and others who interact with these villains every day are particularly susceptible and can easily fall victim to their manipulations. The recent exposure of corruption at the Baltimore City Detention Center provides an example of this. The level of corruption there was severe and widespread. Unfortunately, it is by no means unique. Violence and corruption are daily realities in correctional facilities.
Despite the problems at BCDC, Maryland is in good hands. Thanks to the leadership of corrections department Secretary Gary D. Maynard, Maryland officials have driven down the rate of both inmate-on-staff assaults and inmate-on-inmate assaults. The have also instituted an aggressive program for the abatement of contraband cell phones — including the innovative use of canines — that has resulted in the capture of more contraband phones every year.
Furthermore, it was Gov. Martin O'Malley and Secretary Maynard who helped expose the corruption at BCDC. Maryland officials closely coordinated with federal law enforcement partners on the investigation that led to the recent indictments. In fact, Maryland officials spearheaded the joint task force that led to the investigation and indictments.
Secretary Maynard and Governor O'Malley were smart to leverage the investigative efforts of federal law enforcement partners because they understand the need to make use of the powerful capabilities of the federal government.
Moreover, since the indictments, the governor and Mr. Maynard have continued to take all necessary steps to clean up the facility, change the environment and ensure that those who fell victim to corruption are punished accordingly. Mr. Maynard understands that preventive measures are just as important as the response. He and Mr. O'Malley have implemented a top-to-bottom approach to reform, beginning with a complete overhaul of the culture at the jail.
Security procedures have been changed, technologies have been upgraded and Mr. Maynard has moved his office into the jail. Beyond the improvements and reforms in Baltimore, the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services has recently secured approval from the Maryland General Assembly and the governor to begin the process of having the entire state correctional system accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Corrections. This process involves a rigorous review of professional standards that helps to ensure correctional practices are in compliance with national standards.
This incident underscores the need for more and better training and oversight of correctional officers and staff everywhere. Not because our nation's correctional officers are incompetent and corrupt, but because prisons and jails are so dangerous and full of criminal offenders looking to do wrong. Temptations and manipulation abound in every correctional facility in the country.
Unfortunately, some correctional officers at the Baltimore City Detention Center allowed themselves to fall victim to a career gang leader and master manipulator. They are complicit in giving their profession and correctional officers around the country an undeserved black eye. What is seldom reported is that thousands of men and women employed by the Maryland Department of Corrections go to work every day in one of the toughest jobs imaginable and perform admirably.
They keep the public safe. Maryland citizens should be proud of the job these people do, including their secretary of public safety and their governor. They all deserve thanks for their efforts to make Maryland correctional institutions as safe and secure as possible.
James A. Gondles Jr.
The writer is executive director of the American Correctional Association.