Justifiability of spending at jails debated

March 09, 2005|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

When LaMont W. Flanagan ran Baltimore's jail facilities, he rarely shunned attention for some of the programs he organized for inmates. There were the yoga and Zen meditation classes, the preacher rallies and the standup comedy nights. Even semipro boxing.

Outspoken and media-savvy, Flanagan often made the case that spending some money to keep Baltimore's detainees and inmates pacified was, in the long run, a smart investment in facility safety, according to former colleagues.

But a legislative audit released Monday squarely targeted the former commissioner of the Division of Pretrial Detention and Services - the state agency that runs the city's jail facilities - alleging that he circumvented state procurement regulations and made questionable payments to vendors, including entertainers, in the last two years of his tenure.

Flanagan, who did not return phone calls yesterday, resigned in May 2003 for reasons that were not clear. He now serves as deputy director for administration for the Washington, D.C., Department of Human Services, a $121,000-a-year post.

The audit's findings detailed several problematic practices under Flanagan's watch, such as splitting up credit card purchases, paying vendors without evidence of services rendered, and a practice that effectively paid vendors twice for the same services.

Auditors referred some of their findings to the state attorney general's office, which declined to say yesterday whether it was pursuing a criminal investigation.

Flanagan's successor said yesterday that all the issues raised in the audit have been addressed and the division has since made a distinct departure from Flanagan's practices, including his approach to entertaining inmates.

Providing entertainment to inmates "is not a popular correctional philosophy, not to that degree," Commissioner William J. Smith said yesterday.

"You want to keep [inmates] active in terms of programming, but you don't have to do it in that fashion. ... Good correctional management will prevent riots and disturbances, but you can't do it at the expense of having budgetary issues," Smith said.

From the time Smith became commissioner in May 2003, the issues with procurement were "corrected immediately," he said. "These were issues that were dealt with early on in my tenure."

Smith said that inmates now provide most of their own entertainment, such as organizing talent shows, and volunteers come into the prisons to run certain programs, such as a prison ministry.

As part of their inquiry, state auditors found that division staff prepared 79 invoices for vendors that totaled $68,000, 49 of which were kept at $999 each to skirt state reporting requirements. Two people were paid $33,600 to serve as sound technicians at inmate entertainment events - a problem because the service was not competitively bid and auditors found the price tag to be excessive.

Flanagan also directed payments that totaled nearly $45,000 to sound technicians and a photographer who produced fewer than 100 photos. He also approved spending on picnics and other events for employees and volunteers that added up to $145,000 over two years - expenses that weren't properly disclosed, the audit said.

The division also couldn't produce documents that supported whether it received certain entertainment-related services that cost tens of thousands of dollars.

None of the people or companies connected to the audit's findings was identified by the auditors in the report.

Corrections experts said that spending significant amounts of money for inmate entertainment is unusual in most jails.

"The goal is to reduce recidivism," said Anthony Callisto Jr., president of the American Jail Association and a chief deputy in Onondaga County, N.Y. "Does a standup comedian do that? Probably not."

But, Callisto added: "Yoga and Zen meditation might actually be considered a legitimate program for creating a calm environment. Jails are a high-stress environment, especially the larger facilities."

Joe Weedon, spokesman for the American Correctional Association, said that inmate idleness is "one of the bigger causes of discontent or problems within facilities."

"There are some talented and very creative people behind bars," Weedon said. "That's one of the problems with idleness: They think of some very creative things, and often that leads to problems within the facility."

Bruce A. Myers, the head legislative auditor, said yesterday that his office was not criticizing the practice of spending money on inmate entertainment.

"We don't say you shouldn't spend any money for this," Myers said. " ... But if you're going to spend it, you still have rules to follow."

Kevin Enright, a spokesman for the attorney general's office, said he could not comment on whether a criminal investigation was connected to the legislative audit.

The maximum penalty for procurement fraud is five years; for bribery, two to 12 years; and for theft, 15 years, Enright said.

Sun staff writer Greg Garland contributed to this article.

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