Trouble at the detention center Questions about jail need answers to avert cost and embarrassment.

June 19, 1996

EVENTS OVER the last six months have raised troubling questions about the Howard County Detention Center. Can taxpayers be certain the 235-inmate jail won't be awash in lawsuits because of the actions -- or the lack thereof -- of improperly trained corrections officers? Can the public be certain that the officers they're paying are certified to perform their jobs?

The first of these questions arose in December when Edward Leroy Bennett Sr., a longtime drug user, hanged himself from a sprinkler in his jail cell. A leading corrections expert said officers at the detention center failed to recognize obvious signs that Mr. Bennett was suicidal and neglected to place him under close observation. That failure could prove expensive to the county, as the inmate's family has filed a $3 million lawsuit against the jail.

A lawsuit over another matter was averted last week when a jail captain agreed with a decision by prosecutors to drop assault charges against an inmate.

Capt. Thomas V. Kimball Jr. charged that the inmate kicked him during the skirmish. But the prisoner threatened to sue, alleging the captain beat him while he was handcuffed. His lawyer warned that he would mention during the trial that Captain Kimball's former certification from his years at the Eastern Correctional Institution had lapsed, and that he should not have been on the job when the incident occurred.

James "Buck" Rollins, the detention center's director since 1991, says the two matters paint a distorted portrait of a facility that is performing well while guarding an increasingly hostile inmate population. He dismisses any notions that the jail is troubled. To the contrary, he says, the center has met all state standards.

But state oversight is less than impressive. The Maryland Commission on Correctional Standards, which certifies the state's prisons and jails, relies on jail officials to verify the status of their employees. "It's essentially based on an honor system," one state official said.

Mr. Rollins needs to conduct a thorough, honest review of his institution to identify and correct any lingering problems that could further damage its reputation in the public eye and result in the wasteful loss of public funds in legal costs.

Pub Date: 6/19/96

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