Herndon retiring as prisons chief Strain over budget, crowding cited


When Elmanus Herndon retires as acting state commissioner of corrections next week, he will leave behind a host of controversies -- including lingering questions about mistaken releases of two inmates -- and much disappointment with overcrowded prisons and tight budgets.

"There's a sense of frustration," Herndon said after announcing his retirement yesterday, "frustration with the continuing overcrowding and not being able to establish sufficient treatment programs for inmates.

"As a correctional professional, that's what you're all about," Herndon said.

While Herndon talked about professional frustration, one source suggested that public safety Secretary Bishop L. Robinson was also frustrated -- with the division's continuing problems. At the top of the list was the mistaken release of John Frederick Thanos, who was charged with three murders after he was set free from prison last April.

"Bishop basically had had it," said one source. "Herndon was a great deputy commissioner and served loyally for many years. But the Thanos incident made it clear that the division needs some fundamental changes."

Herndon and Robinson clashed earlier this year when Robinson seemed to distance himself from a controversial program implemented by Herndon in which inmates living in overcrowded prisons were awarded special early-release credits.

Even so, Herndon said the decision to retire was his own.

"I'm retiring because I wanted something different," Herndon said. "I think I've made some contributions. You try to effect the greatest change that you can to benefit the system. But, we continue to be in overcrowded situations and resources are very, very scarce. You can sense you're not going to have a lot of money for treatment programs."

"There are always going to be controversies, but you deal with them," Herndon said. "I think that's what we've done over the years."

Herndon, 53, is retiring after 27 years in the division. He began work as a guard and made several stops in the hierarchy before reaching the post of deputy commissioner in 1977. Since then, he has filled in several times as acting commissioner but never reached the top job on a permanent basis.

Herndon noted that despite the prison overcrowding, the system has almost completely avoided serious riots or disturbances. He said he had been considering retiring for four or five months -- well before Thanos' alleged crime spree.

Herndon has had to cope with court-ordered population caps, problems in interpreting early-release programs and a number of prison construction foul-ups. Gov. William Donald Schaefer has promised an independent investigation of the division's handling of the Thanos release, as well as the mistaken release of a female inmate who was also charged with murder after she left prison.

"I'm sure that with all the stuff that is going on, he just looked around one day and decided, 'I've done this long enough,' " said one prison official with ties to Herndon.

Herndon said assistant public safety secretary Richard A. Lanham Sr. would run the division on an interim basis. Merry Coplin, the acting deputy commissioner, has been mentioned as a likely successor to Herndon.

The actual position of commissioner has been vacant since September 1989, when Fred E. Jordan Jr. resigned after only nine months in the job. Herndon has served as acting commissioner since then.

Herndon will collect two and a half months of accumulated vacation pay when he leaves, according to a statement released by the division.

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