Prison System Scapegoat?

October 11, 1990

Is a prison clerk being made a scapegoat for the failure of prison officials to keep convicted robber John Thanos behind bars? Did officials rush to release Thanos, who is accused of killing three people after being freed, simply to relieve prison overcrowding?

One investigation already has been completed, another is in progress and a third probe soon may be launched by Gov. William Donald Schaefer to determine why Thanos was let go 18 months early. Officials admit a new early-release policy was mistakenly applied to the convicted robber and rapist. The clerk claims an assistant warden and a headquarters official approved his decision; the acting commissioner of correction has confirmedthat fact. Yet only the clerk was suspended.

Now department officials seem to be changing their story, blaming the clerk alone for Thanos' premature release. Meanwhile, it turns out a second inmate was improperly let go from state prison due to a paperwork snafu. Two weeks later, she was charged with murder.

Such bureaucratic bungling cannot be tolerated. If top public safety officials cannot run an efficient penal system, they should be replaced. Incompetence in managing an overburdened prison system can have dangerous consequences.

Governor Schaefer, to his credit, says he wants a thorough probe of the Thanos mistake and the system's early-release policies. Officials appear so intent on making room for new inmates they have embraced a variety of methods to shorten terms. Since April, for instance, nearly 1,000 inmates have been given special credit -- and gained early release -- simply because the prisons where they were housed were overcrowded. In the Thanos case, officials eagerly applied good-time credits from a prior sentence to justify his release.

This lunacy must stop. It is wrong to let inmates out prematurely just to free up much-in-demand cells. Yet that seems to be standard operating procedure at the Division of Correction. It may be time for a good housecleaning at DOC -- and at the highest ranks of the public safety department.

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