Prison reform still in planning stage Action lags despite early-release uproar

November 12, 1990|By William F. Zorzi Jr.

There's a joke among Maryland prison officials about the Division of Correction's preparing for the 21st century -- just as soon as it enters the 20th.

It is a wry remark born out of frustration with a system notorious for its foot-dragging despite promises to speed things up.

In the past two months, for instance, there has been talk but little action by state officials on resolving problems with the process of calculating sentence lengths -- a process that recently allowed the mistaken early release of two inmates who were charged individually later with killing a total of four people.

* Five weeks ago, Gov. William Donald Schaefer, Maryland's "Do-it-now" executive, who meanwhile had been busy on the campaign trail, pledged to launch an independent investigation of the early release of John F. Thanos, who has been charged with killing three teen-agers.

No one has been named to look into it.

* Three days after the governor's Oct. 8 announcement, Paul E. Schurick, his press secretary, said Mr. Schaefer would name an independent counsel to investigate the entire process of calculating inmates' sentence lengths -- not just the release of Thanos -- although he could not say when that would occur.

Now, according to Ray Feldmann, another spokesman, Mr. Schaefer is going to wait until he reviews a second investigation by the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services of Thanos' release.

* Nearly seven weeks ago, Public Safety Secretary Bishop L. Robinson told the House Appropriations Committee that he was implementing major changes, including a system of checks, to try to ensure that mistakes resulting in the release of inmates such as Thanos do not occur.

Describing the process of calculating sentence lengths as "a nightmare," Mr. Robinson told legislators Sept. 25 that he was requiring a supervisor and assistant warden to approve each release instead of leaving it up to each institution's commitment supervisor, a job that pays $19,000 to $25,000 a year and is among the lowest-paid in the agency.

But little -- if anything -- has changed.

"We're working on it," said Sgt. Gregory M. Shipley, spokesman for the Division of Correction.

"Comprehensive" training is needed before supervisors and assistant wardens sign off on releases, although that training has yet to be scheduled, Sergeant Shipley said. But corrections officials say it may take more than just training.

Fear of reprisals from headquarters for making mistakes on sentence lengths has raised concerns among supervisors and assistant wardens -- fear that officials say is shared by commitment office workers themselves -- in the wake of efforts to fire supervisors at the Eastern Correctional Institution and at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup.

Those personnel actions were prompted by the release of Thanos, a robber and rapist, and Betty V. Rorie, a flimflam artist, forger and thief who was charged with a murder and an attempted murder after being wrongly released.

Until Mr. Robinson's double-check plan can be implemented, each prison's commitment supervisor will continue to shoulder sole responsibility for calculating release dates and signing release papers.

The problem of calculating sentences is not a new one.

In a federal grant application last year for the Division of Correction's first-ever handbook on commitment -- which still is not ready for use -- state prison officials admitted there were enormous problems with its system of record-keeping.

The application specifically mentioned a lack of written procedures for sentence calculations, resulting in "divergent practices." It also cited the lack of a well-defined chain of command and lack of a system for monitoring commitment office operations.

In another promised change that has not yet come to pass, Mr. Robinson told legislators that the agency would consolidate commitment offices in the Baltimore-Jessup area and centralize inmate commitment records at headquarters in Baltimore -- changes recommended as long ago as 1985 in a management audit by the Department of Budget and Fiscal Planning.

Prison officials in the Baltimore-Jessup area are currently "looking for space to regionalize the office," Sergeant Shipley said.

The "intensive training . . . retraining and continuous training of our commitment staff" Mr. Robinson told legislators would occur has yet to take place.

But an interim arrangement for answering questions raised about sentence calculations has been established.

On Oct. 18, more than three weeks after Mr. Robinson's appearance before the House committee, acting Correction Commissioner Elmanus Herndon -- who has since retired -- issued a memo detailing an interim plan for commitment problems that cannot be resolved at the prison.

The memo states that if a question arises about an inmate's sentence, the commitment supervisor is to fax the inmate's records to Warren R. Sparrow, the headquarters chief of commitment.

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