James N. "Buck" Rollins, the embattled director of the Howard County Detention Center, has abruptly announced his retirement -- a year earlier than expected and hours after he said his leadership had been vindicated by the dismissal of charges against a jail guard.

In a statement issued late Wednesday, Rollins, 48, said he would retire from the 361-bed jail in Jessup effective Oct. 1 to become a full-time pastor at the Living Waters Worship Center in Gambrills, where he has been co-pastor for 2 1/2 years.

Rollins has been director of the detention center since 1991.

The pull between church leader and jail director, Rollins said, has often been a powerful and difficult one. He said he decided to retire when his duties as a minister were demanding more and more of his time.

"Every Sunday, I was able to give relief from the wear and scars of people's lives," said Rollins. "Then, I'd have to go to work on Monday and deal with people who had very difficult life issues. It's been very difficult. I can't do two things at once anymore."

Rollins' announcement came hours after county prosecutors dropped assault and battery charges against Donald J. Pryor, one of two jail officers indicted in October on charges of beating inmates. The timing allows Rollins to announce his retirement on a high note after he -- and the detention center -- had been at the center of increasing scrutiny for more than a year.

The jail's troubles may remain in public focus next month and in June, however, when two trials are scheduled for a second officer charged with beating two handcuffed inmates.

As recently as August, Rollins said he planned to remain at his post until the end of County Executive Charles I. Ecker's term.

But Ecker said Rollins had talked of retiring for a while and thought this would be the perfect time to announce his decision.

"I sort of think he sees the Pryor case being dismissed as a vindication for him," Ecker said in a telephone interview yesterday.

"I really hate to see him go, because I think he's done a wonderful job," said Ecker, who has strongly backed Rollins throughout the jail's troubles. "But I was being a little selfish. I wanted him to finish his tenure as jail director in 1998, when we could go out together."

Attention focused on Rollins and the detention center in December 1995, when the suicide of an inmate led to a $3 million federal lawsuit against the jail by the inmate's family. A federal judge dismissed the case.

Since then, the jail has had a series of problems, including two officers fired for sexual misconduct with an inmate and allegations of physical abuse of inmates by officers.

In January, a county grand jury issued a critical report of the jail, asking for an independent oversight panel to review management procedures there -- a request that was rejected by Ecker.

Some welcome departure

A jail officer who requested anonymity said yesterday that Rollins' decision to retire was welcome and long overdue. The officer also said problems persist at the jail.

"Most of the officers here at the jail feel like they're glad he's leaving," the guard said. "I seriously doubt that you could find anyone who works here who has any respect for the man.

"Rollins has always said that the jail has no problems whatsoever, but the general opinion is that there's a lot that's going wrong around here."

Some of those troubles soon may be aired in court.

In the next two months, Capt. Thomas V. Kimball Jr. a controversial shift commander hired by Rollins, is to stand trial on allegations that he beat handcuffed inmates Michael A. Saukas and Lamont D. Adams, both of Columbia.

Rollins and his supporters have maintained that the criminal cases against the guards are baseless. The criticism, they say, comes from disgruntled employees.

"I think some people at the jail would see this as a victory," Timothy J. McCrone, the attorney defending the officers accused of assault, said of Rollins' retirement. "There always was an element working in the detention center who have been striving to make his life difficult and run him out of office."

State's Attorney Marna McLendon said the criminal charges that her office pursued against officers should not be a reflection on Rollins' leadership.

"I will sincerely miss working with Buck Rollins. He is one of the most wonderful individuals I have ever met," McLendon said. "Our cases involved people on his staff, not Buck."

Rollins said the timing of his retirement announcement had nothing to do with the Pryor or Kimball cases.

"I had been talking to Dr. Ecker about retiring for a while now," Rollins said yesterday in a telephone interview from his Jessup office. "The facility has taken a lot of heat over the past couple of years, but the issue for me has always been about the wearing of two hats, minister and jail director."

Rollins became director of the detention center in March 1991 after working in the state correctional system for 22 years.

He has said that he became interested in corrections while he was a military policeman assigned to the Army's 1st Infantry Division stockade. In 1969, he began his career as a correctional officer in the Maryland House of Corrections in Jessup, where he became a captain.

In 1985, he became warden of the Maryland Correctional Institution, a medium-security prison in Jessup. Three years later, he was named warden of the maximum-security Maryland Penitentiary in Baltimore.

Chosen in 1991

In 1991, Ecker picked Rollins from among 100 applicants to run the detention center, a job that pays $74,775.

In his six years as the Howard jail's director, Rollins said, he has tried to do more than incarcerate people.

Three years ago, Rollins got $90,000 in federal funds to establish a full branch of the Howard County Library in the jail. Another of Rollins' projects is an education program for jailed first-time juvenile offenders.

In the fall of 1994, Rollins and his wife, Varle, began holding church meetings in the living room of their Gambrills home. They moved the Sunday services into an Anne Arundel County elementary school in April 1995 and within two years had 147 active members.

Asked whether he had a candidate in mind to succeed him at the jail, Rollins said he would offer Ecker a list of names if asked.

Ecker said no candidates for the job had been identified. The job, he said, "is wide open."

Pub Date: 4/25/97

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