Chief of prisons is retiring, citing lack of resources

October 24, 1990|By William F. Zorzi Jr.

Citing "frustration" with Maryland's overcrowded prisons and limited resources for inmate programs, Elmanus "El" Herndon, acting head of the state's troubled Division of Correction, said yesterday that he was retiring, effective Nov. 2.

Mr. Herndon, 53, said in an interview that he was giving up his $70,342-a-year post because of personnel and equipment shortages and limited education and substance-abuse treatment programs in prisons -- not because of pressure to resign in the wake of several blunders by the Division of Correction.

"This is something I considered four, five months ago," said Mr. Herndon, the deputy commissioner who has been acting in the top post since September 1989, when Fred E. Jordan Jr. quit abruptly after nine months on the job.

Asked if he was under pressure to retire from Bishop L. Robinson, state secretary of public safety and correctional services, Mr. Herndon said, "Absolutely not. Secretary Robinson has never indicated that to me. In fact, he had no knowledge I was going to retire until I told him."

Mr. Herndon denied that recent events -- including the mistaken early release of John F. Thanos and Betty V. Rorie, who later were charged in separate incidents with killing a total of four people -- had anything to do with the move.

"As for the events of recent weeks, in the course of 28 years in the division, a lot of things have cropped up. It was not that kind of feeding frenzy," said Mr. Herndon.

His current stint as agency head marks the fifth time that he has been acting correction commissioner. Mr. Herndon, an affable man who is very popular among his subordinates, has never been appointed commissioner.

He will remain on the state payroll on paid, accumulated leave until Feb. 15, 1991, said Sgt. Gregory M. Shipley, spokesman for the agency.

Sergeant Shipley said no replacement had been named. He said next in the chain of command was Merry L. Coplin, acting deputy commissioner and former warden of the Reception, Diagnostic and Classification Center in Baltimore.

Among the more embarrassing events for the Division of Correction during the past two months were:

* The mistaken early release of Thanos, a convicted rapist and robber, because of what correction officials say was a misapplication of a new policy on calculating so-called "good-time" credits for overlapping sentences. Thanos, who was released from Eastern Correctional Institution 18 months early under the new policy, was charged last month with the killing of three teen-agers.

* The mistaken early release of Rorie, a Baltimore flimflam artist, because paperwork that would have kept her in prison on another sentence about 7 1/2 months longer had been misplaced at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup. She was charged in August with stabbing a 73-year-old man to death and attempting to kill an 83-year-old woman in Baltimore.

* The incorrect application of another new policy that gives prisoners early-release credits for living in overcrowded institutions. Since mid-April, almost 1,000 inmates have been released early -- by as many as 70 days -- under the policy. Although the Division of Correction won legislative approval for the program, prison officials went one step further by reducing sentences of all inmates in overcrowded prisons -- not just those who actually lived in cramped conditions.

* The mistaken early release of Stephen A. Brown, who had been serving time on drug charges, again because of a misapplication of the "good-time" credit policy on overlapping sentences. At the time of his rearrest, Brown was holding down a job and reporting to his probation officer.

Despite bungling by the Division of Correction during his current tenure, Mr. Herndon said it was the frustration of dealing with the larger corrections issues that drove him to retire.

"The sense of frustration I have is the overall outlook in the way the community sees prisons," he said. "Why isn't there more support for what the community wants prison to be? They [the inmates] come back, and the community looks at the commissioner of correction and says, 'Look, you haven't done your job.' "

But, he said, "It's totally unrealistic to think that by merely incarcerating a person, you're going to make him whole again."

In order to attack that problem, prison educational and substance-abuse treatment programs need to be expanded, Mr. Herndon said.

"We've got idle inmates on our hands. These people want to learn, but there's no place for them," he said.

Although he stopped short of criticizing Gov. William Donald Schaefer and the General Assembly for not appropriating more money for the Division of Correction, Mr. Herndon did say elected officials needed more "feedback" from aides and constituents. "If they don't tell the governor, how does he know?" he asked.

"If we can treat people and educate people, they won't need the space. That's the whole kit and caboodle," Mr. Herndon said.

Mr. Herndon began his career with the state prison system in 1963 and quickly rose through the ranks to lieutenant. In 1969, he was promoted to deputy warden at the House of Correction, a position he held until 1971, when he was named chief of operations for the Division of Correction.

In 1974, he was promoted to superintendent of the state's network of minimum-security prisons and pre-release units. A year later, he became assistant commissioner of operations. In 1977, he was named deputy commissioner.

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