Search for a new prison chief Robinson retires: He held 'thankless job' for 10 years as inmate population soared.

September 30, 1997

WHEN Bishop L. Robinson stepped into the job as Maryland's public safety secretary in 1987, he inherited a prison system in disarray: weak management, poor planning and lengthy construction delays. Ten years later, Mr. Robinson leaves to his successor a much more disciplined and well-management department, but one that still is grappling with the old dilemma of too many prisoners and not enough beds.

Running the state's corrections department is, in Mr. Robinson's words, a ''thankless job.'' It is also one of the more depressing jobs -- trying to maintain order among jailed criminals.

But he brought to this task a career police officer's commitment to public safety. And he had thrived under the military-style management of Baltimore City Police Commissioner Donald D. Pomerleau, rising through the ranks eventually to the top city police post.

Over the past decade, the nation's prison policy has leaned heavily toward warehousing, with little thought given to rehabilitation. Tough federal and state laws now mandate longer prison terms, which are creating a new inmate surge. Ten years ago, Maryland's prison population stood at 12,500 inmates; today it has reached 25,000.

Mr. Robinson responded under former Gov. William Donald Schaefer with a thoughtful plan to remodel antiquated prisons and open new ones. But under Gov. Parris N. Glendening, prison construction has pretty much come to a halt. This has created new tensions in existing, overcrowded penal facilities, and dangerous situations for prison guards.

As Mr. Glendening looks for a new corrections secretary, he ought to focus on candidates not wedded to the warehousing approach. Prison alternatives for less serious offenders, such as home detention, must be expanded even as more cells are built for long-term inmates. Education, job training and addiction services merit more emphasis, too. Bishop Robinson has put the state's public safety department on firm footing. The next secretary must be prepared to focus more attention on cutting the recidivism rate.

Pub Date: 9/30/97

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