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Slipping through the cracks

Officials at the Maryland Reception, Diagnostic and Classification Center say they still don't know why a man being held on murder charges was mistakenly allowed to walk out of the facility last week — or why it took authorities two days to discover the error. Given all the problems over the last year with corrupt guards conspiring with inmates to smuggle contraband into the nearby Baltimore City Detention Center — also run by the state corrections department — one would think officials would be working overtime to tighten security procedures throughout the system. Yet the mix-up that resulted in the alleged killer's escape appears to have stemmed not from any elaborate conspiracy or corruption scheme but from simple incompetence.

Last Friday, Rodriquez Purnell, 30, was accidentally freed from the Maryland Reception, Diagnostic and Classification Center, which houses inmates who are segregated for various reasons, after guards misinterpreted paperwork showing he had served his sentence for an unrelated conviction handed down in July for assaulting a correctional officer. Jail officials suggested the guards may have been unaware that Mr. Purnell was also awaiting trial in the murder of 27-year-old Terrence Rheubottom last year — a charge that made him ineligible for release.

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Compounding the problem, jail officials didn't learn of the error until the following Sunday. Rheubottom's relatives said they contacted the agency that day to report that Mr. Purnell had been seen in the neighborhood boasting that he had beaten the murder charge while sitting on his grandmother's porch and driving around the neighborhood in a white car. If Rheubottom's family hadn't reported Mr. Purnell's return to the streets, it appears altogether possible that authorities might still not know that he had given them the slip. Mr. Purnell remains at large, and by now it seems likely that he has gone into hiding.

Embarrassed officials have launched an investigation into the escape, put one employee on paid leave and admitted that proper "release procedures were not adhered to." That's an understatement, and unfortunately it's not an isolated incident. Though the contraband ring run by inmates affiliated with the Black Guerilla Family prison gang at the city jail has gotten the most attention, there have been other security lapses, including the mistaken release last year of four people from Central Booking and Intake, including a Pennsylvania man charged with fatally stabbing a homeless person and a woman accused of killing her grandson with methadone.

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Corrections officials insist the problems are isolated incidents and that the guards involved in such cases have been disciplined while training has been stepped up. But if that's true, the results don't show it. Before releasing an inmate jail staffers are supposed to perform multiple checks that include searches for outstanding warrants, detainers and pending charges for other crimes. Obviously that didn't happen the way it should have in Mr. Purnell's case, and as a result witnesses to last year's killing as well as Rheubottom's family may have been put at risk.

It's outrageous that Rheubottom's mother, Jacqueline Davis, now must fear for the safety of her own mother and other relatives because Mr. Purnell, whom they believe guilty, is on the loose again. It's bad enough that the justice they seek has been delayed, perhaps indefinitely, by the suspect's escape, and it only adds insult to injury that they now feel compelled to stand guard on their own against the possibility of harm. The state needs to dedicate all resources available to finding and apprehending as quickly as possible the allegedly violent Mr. Purnell so that no one else is endangered by his return to the streets.

Del. John W.E. Cluster, who served on a panel that investigated the failings at the Baltimore City Detention Center last year, has called on the state police to launch an investigation into this incident. We think that's entirely appropriate. When it comes to finding and fixing its own failings, the corrections department has by now lost all benefit of the doubt.

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