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State prison chief leaving Lanham announces retirement Dec. 31 as head of corrections; 'I'm getting paroled'; Assistant commissioner named acting director; job to be filled by Feb.


After 39 years as one of Maryland's most prominent crime fighters, corrections Commissioner Richard A. Lanham Sr. said he will retire Dec. 31 as head of the state's prisons.

"I'm getting paroled," Lanham, 62, said with a sigh of relief. "I'm heading out.

"I just felt that I had served the citizens of the great state of Maryland for 40 years, and it's time to do some other things, travel with my wife."

William W. Sondervan, an assistant prison commissioner for security operations, has been named acting commissioner of the state Division of Correction, which is the largest component of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. State officials expect to name a permanent replacement by February.

Since 1990, Lanham ran a department that included nearly 7,300 employees, 25 prisons with 22,300 inmates and a budget of $477 million.

He's weathered such storms as a riot in a Hagerstown prison in 1992 and another in a Jessup prison in 1997. He also handled the executions of convicted murderers Flint Gregory Hunt last year and Tyrone Gilliam this year.

"From the administration's perspective, Richard Lanham is kind of the Cal Ripken of corrections," said Ray Feldmann, a spokesman for Gov. Parris N. Glendening. "He's been there for ** many years. He's steady, dependable, reliable, not always flashy, but we're going to be sorry to lose him."

Despite the adversarial nature of his job -- balancing the needs of the convicted with those of correctional officers -- Lanham has had success maintaining good relationships with many people in the prison system.

"He will be missed by everyone from correctional officer to warden, from current inmate to parolee," said Stuart O. Simms, secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. "He brought a unifying spirit. The state and the Division of Correction is all the better for his service."

Sgt. Bernard W. Ralph Jr., head of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees local that represents correctional officers at the Jessup prisons, said that Lanham handled his job the best way he could, but that his efforts often were hamstrung by the state.

"He was always willing to listen to the correctional officers," said Ralph, a correctional officer at the Maryland House of Correction Annex. "We didn't always agree with the final result, but he did listen."

Not everyone praised Lanham. Azora Irby-Muntasir, an inmate advocate and former director of the nonprofit Maryland Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants, said problems with riots and drugs in prisons during Lanham's tenure show that everything has not gone as smoothly as the state suggests.

"What is the state doing to ensure safety in the prisons?" Irby-Muntasir said. "I say good riddance."

Lanham was responsible for developing and overseeing such nationally recognized programs as boot camps, where inmates learn military discipline and participate in educational programs and drug treatment; home detention; and intensive drug treatment, called the Correctional Options Program, for inmates about to be released.

The options program has been called a national model by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Lanham began his career as a Baltimore police officer 39 years ago. In 1986, he became chief of the Criminal Investigation Division, overseeing 275 supervisors and detectives.

The way he ran CID is reflected on "Homicide: Life on the Street." On Jan. 29, the television show will honor Lanham by having him appear and announce his retirement. "If I don't meet the cutting room floor," he said.

In 1988, he joined the state Department of Public Safety as

executive director of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board.

Then-state public safety Secretary Bishop L. Robinson appointed him assistant secretary of the department in 1989 and commissioner of corrections in 1990.

Maryland's inmate population has increased 70 percent during the past decade, and the number of prisoners serving life terms rose by 80 percent. Even with 25 prisons built, the state is embarking on another prison project that is expected to begin next summer.

Lanham said the state must continue its focus on crime prevention. He said he believes it is possible to combat crime, but the effort is going to take teamwork.

"There is no limit to the good a person can do, if he does not care if others get the credit," said Lanham, quoting a sign he had seen. "That's been my motto and my creed for these 40 years."

Pub Date: 12/25/98

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