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New corrections chief has 30 years in field

The Baltimore Sun

Jack Kavanagh grew up with dreams of becoming a Baltimore City police officer. He was disappointed to find out he wouldn't make the cut because his eyesight wasn't good enough.

Perfect vision or not, Kavanagh needed a job after graduating from college, so he applied for an advertised position as an intake interviewer at the Baltimore City Jail in 1977.

He hasn't turned back since.

After a nearly 30-year corrections career, Kavanagh has been named director of the Howard County Department of Corrections, County Executive Ken Ulman announced last month. Kavanagh, 52, has served as acting director of the department since December, after 10-year director Melanie Pereira retired.

"When I interviewed Jack months ago, I felt he was the right person for this job, but we both wanted to make sure this situation was a good fit for all of us," Ulman said in a statement. "As I thought would be the case, Director Kavanagh has proved up to the challenge and then some."

As director, he is in charge of a 144-member staff that oversees about 200 inmates. He will also serve as warden of the Howard County Detention Center, where the average inmate stay is 90 days.

Kavanagh, a Maryland native who lives in Baltimore County, has been deputy director of the department since January 2003, responsible for oversight of security, staff training, emergency preparedness and compliance with correctional standards.

Before working in Howard County, he worked for the Maryland Division of Correction for 24 years, most recently as assistant commissioner at the division's headquarters.

He said the changeover to the director position has been smooth.

"I was quite familiar with the facility, and the staff has been cooperative," Kavanagh said. "It's been a pretty seamless transition."

One of Kavanagh's goals for the Howard County Detention Center is to continue with programs that will help inmates once they are released.

"You don't have good security without good programs, and you don't have good programs without good security," he said. "They go hand-in-hand. We put an emphasis on being proactive.

"The programs are where we get to have some intervention."

While implementing changes, Kavanagh said he has no interest in turning things upside-down at the department.

"In terms of philosophical changes, there are none," he said.

One aspect of the jail that he said he works hard to maintain is a clean and respectful atmosphere, as his predecessor did.

"Just because you're an inmate in jail doesn't mean you go cursing at people," he said.

In response to inmate suicides in recent years, Kavanagh said he and his staff have instituted changes to prevent more deaths.

He said a team of staff members - who include a counselor, correctional officer and member of the mental health staff - now performs "wellness checks" on each inmate once a week. Correctional officers also receive training on suicide awareness that must be renewed yearly, he said, and a Spanish-speaking officer meets with Hispanic inmates every week to ensure their needs are met.

"One of the things we stress is that it's important to engage inmates," Kavanagh said. "The more opportunities we have for face-to-face contact, the better it's going to be."

Kavanagh said he has requested an increase in mental health staff, which was added to the budget. Minor changes include improved lighting in some of the housing units and repainting much of the jail.

As of yesterday, inmates can no longer wear shoelaces.

"It's just one less thing people can hang themselves with," he said of the change.

Patricia Schupple, who has worked in corrections for 34 years, has replaced Kavanagh as deputy director. A Howard County resident, she served since 2004 as programs supervisor for the Howard County Department of Corrections. She also worked as warden for the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup.

Like Kavanagh, much of Schupple's career was in the state corrections system.

"It's a different dynamic, a different system," she said. "It's much more centered in the community," Schupple said of the county corrections department.

Kavanagh said at one point, he wanted to go to law school, but a "switch went off" one day that told him corrections was the field for him. He said he loves the field because "there's no two days alike."

"I thought it was something I was good at," he said. "What I've learned is there's a lot of good folks in this business, people with conviction and character. And I see a lot of that here."

He said he sees those good qualities especially in Howard County, where he estimates that 60 percent of the correctional staff has transferred from another jurisdiction for that reason.

"We have that reputation of a safe, orderly place," he said. "This is the kind of environment that attracts people."

Kavanagh said that even though he never thought he would be in corrections for so long, he has enjoyed helping people who need a second chance.

"I did not anticipate that I would ever make it a career," he said. "I've been very fortunate to have the opportunities that I have.

"It's been overall a good career. There have been times when it's been difficult. ... But I've worked for a lot of good people throughout my career."

Perhaps one of Kavanagh's most memorable jobs was working as warden at the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center, or Supermax, a maximum-security prison. When Kavanagh first began his two-year stint as warden, he was charged by the Department of Justice to make changes that would improve the safety inside the prison after years.

"It was a great learning experience, but I wouldn't have to learn it all over again," Kavanagh said. "I think the one thing I can probably say is ... through the work of all the staff down there, we made a lot of changes that made the facility a lot safer."

He said he remembers walking through the prison his first day there and asking several correctional officers why they were wearing raincoats on a sunny day. He was shocked to hear that it was because inmates had a tradition of throwing urine and feces at the officers as they walked by.

"It was a pretty challenging environment," Kavanagh said.

Kavanagh said one of his most positive influences has been his first supervisor, William L. Smith, who is warden at the Montgomery County Detention Center.

"To this day, I can still recall conversations he had with me," Kavanagh said. "He taught me the right way to do things."

Smith said he is confident that Kavanagh will do well as director because of his "profound commitment" to helping others.

"He stood out amongst most of his peers," Smith said. "He is certainly a man of integrity and character."

tyeesha.dixon@baltsun.com

Highlights in Kavanagh's Corrections Career

Aug. 1977: Earns bachelor of science degree in criminal justice from the University of Baltimore

Sept. 1977: Begins corrections career as intake interviewer at Baltimore City Jail

May 1993-Oct. 1995: Director of case management, Maryland Division of Correction headquarters

Sept. 1997-Jan. 1999: Warden, Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center

July 2000-Dec. 2002: Deputy commissioner, Maryland Division of Correction headquarters

Jan. 2003-Dec. 2007: Deputy director, Howard County Department of Corrections

March 17, 2008: Named director of Howard County Department of Corrections by County Executive Ken Ulman.

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