Corrections Commissioner Elmanus Herndon's retirement announcement this week was a belated acknowledgment of frustration by the state prisons chief over a system that has been chronicly under-funded and overcrowded. Herndon clearly felt ready to throw in the towel over the drumfire of bad news that had become a perennial source of embarrassment to his boss, State Public Safety Director Bishop Robinson.
In particular, Herndon expressed frustration over not being able to establish adequate rehabilitation and treatment programs for prison inmates, due mainly to a continuing budget crunch and court-ordered prison population caps. Yet those are precisely the kind of programs that distinguish the "corrections" function from mere punishment -- which, however justified, does nothing to ensure that those convicted of crimes won't resort to their old ways the moment they get out.
Some 75 percent of prison inmates commit new crimes within five years of their release; the current system serves as little more than a graduate school for serious offenders. Herndon at least tried to make rehabilitation a feasible alternative to the endless cycle of incarceration, release and recidivism. But every well-publicized escape or violent crime committed by a paroled inmate invariably prompted criticism of rehabilitation policies in favor of a reflexive "lock 'em up and throw away the key."
Now that Herndon is going, we may as well drop the hypocritical euphemism, "Department of Corrections," and simply advertise for a new "Commissioner of Punishment."