Keeper of the Jail LaMont Flanagan faces the formidable challenge of reforming city's jail

December 06, 1992|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,Staff Writer

LaMont Flanagan is living a life of crime and loving it.

As head honcho of the city's jail since August 1991, Mr. Flanagan's life revolves around criminals and the penal institution he was hired to improve.

"It's been a challenge," the 41-year-old commissioner says in his office between meetings and making jail rounds. "Professionally. Emotionally. Physically."

By many accounts, the challenge Commissioner Flanagan faced was a formidable one.

The public -- already angry about the climbing crime rate -- was outraged over incidents at the Division of Pre-Trial Detention and Services, formerly called the City Jail. For instance, the year before Mr. Flanagan was appointed, there was a murder at the jail, two escapes and an attempted escape.

There were at least 93 inmates held for months without trial dates due to mistakes in the criminal justice system and jail administration. Security posts were going unstaffed, and the system for keeping track of prisoners was an antiquated one.

"When I arrived, I found disorganization, a lack of priorities, a lack of direction, poor supervision among inmates and poor supervision among the staff. All this at the third largest jail in the country. If I had to put it another way, the patient was in intensive care -- and dying," he says.

The "patient" had also -- finally -- been dumped. The city had long been tired of running the jail and shouldering the financial responsibility for it. In 1991, city officials gladly supported the state's takeover of the jail, which was approved by the General Assembly.

And the state wanted new leadership at the jail -- paving the way for Mr. Flanagan. He already had experience working in corrections programs in New York and Richmond, Va. -- and it didn't hurt that he came with the highest recommendation one could wish for when applying for a state job: Gov. William Donald Schaefer liked him.

"He applied for a [corrections] position with the governor some time ago," says Secretary of Public Safety Bishop Robinson. "The governor was impressed and brought him to my attention. When the position opened up, I contacted him," he says.

The reasons Mr. Flanagan got the job? Mr. Robinson ticks them off: credentials, knowledge of community programs, being a "visionary" problem solver. "And his philosophy melded with mine," he adds.

So Mr. Flanagan came to work at the forbidding fortress on East Madison Street, through whose doors about 30,000 handcuffed inmates come every year. The toughest of the tough are #F confined to the "segregation unit," rows of cells running down each side of a dank hallway.

Commissioner Flanagan's charge when hired was to shape up the jail and keep the prisoners inside the institution until they were legally free to go or were transferred to another institution.

Accomplishing this has been a complicated task, and Mr. Flanagan has had his share of troubles with it since taking over. For instance, a correctional officer was beaten by three inmates this past summer, just days after other inmates set fire to a mattress in the jail.

But comments about Mr. Flanagan's performance have been mostly positive. "I am pleased," Secretary Robinson says.

"Conditions in the Baltimore City Detention Center have improved significantly since the state assumed responsibility," Norman A. Carlson and Gerald M. Farkas, prison consultants appointed by the federal court to oversee the jail, wrote in a report.

A pretty good guy'

Frank Dunbaugh, a lawyer who represents the inmates in a long-standing court fight to improve conditions and reduce overcrowding, says the commissioner still needs to address problems at the jail but adds, "He's imaginative. He's energetic. He's a pretty good guy."

Having too many bodies for too small a space is still a significant problem, say people connected with the prison, including Mr. Robinson, the consultants and Mr. Dunbaugh. The jail's population may not exceed a court-ordered cap of 2,813 inmates, and additional prisoners are being placed in police lockups. The anticipated 1994 expansion of the jail should ease the situation, some say.

Not everybody has kind words about the commissioner. Rudy Porter, spokesman for the Maryland Correctional Union, says, "We have not been very pleased with his administration." The commissioner's managerial style, he says, is to "intimidate" employees.

"He took an attitude that employees who work there needed to be scared and that he has a right to fire anyone," Mr. Porter says. Mr. Flanagan responds that no one was fired "that didn't merit" it.

Mr. Flanagan is proud of the job he has done and repeatedly says any credit must be shared with the governor, Mr. Robinson, the General Assembly and others. "I've had a lot of assistance," he says.

From behind the desk (where a red baseball cap, with the word "BOSS" emblazoned on it, sits front and center), he talks of one of the first changes he made.

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