New warden appointed for troubled prison

Former city police commander to take over at House of Correction, site of three homicides since May


Maryland's prisons chief has named a new warden to take over the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup -- with a mandate to reduce violence at a facility where three inmates have been killed since May.

Division of Correction Commissioner Frank C. Sizer Jr. said he has given newly appointed warden Wendell M. "Pete" France broad authority to make whatever changes he feels are needed to tighten security and stem the mayhem at the House of Correction.

The maximum-security prison houses 1,100 inmates, many serving lengthy sentences for violent offenses. A poorly designed structure built in 1878, the House of Correction has a reputation within the state prison system for being notoriously difficult to manage.

Since November, France has been warden of the state-run Maryland Reception, Diagnostic and Classification Center in Baltimore, where inmates entering the system are processed and their prison assignments are determined.

Sizer said William Williams, current warden at the House of Correction, will switch jobs with France and take over Monday as warden of the diagnostic facility.

France has had a long career in law enforcement, including serving as a commander and chief of detectives for the Baltimore Police Department in the late 1990s. He was not available for comment yesterday.

France's appointment and other changes, such as installing more sophisticated screening devices that staff and visitors to the prison must pass through, signal that business as usual is no longer acceptable at the House of Correction, Sizer said yesterday.

"The message that we're trying to send is that we're going to do whatever it takes to maintain a safe and secure institution for staff as well as inmates," he said.

He said there are no plans to transfer inmates to other prisons but added that France will have the discretion to make such moves after reviewing security requirements.

"The marching orders are basically to take an objective look at the operation to see if there are things we can be doing better and would be more effective to reduce violence, if that's possible," Sizer said.

France's appointment comes on the heels of three inmate slayings at the House of Correction since May. The most recent was two weeks ago when a popular Sunni Muslim inmate leader was fatally stabbed by an inmate belonging to a different Islamic group.

Ron Angelone, a former director of corrections in Virginia and Nevada who heads a correctional consulting company, said it is common for prison system administrators to switch wardens when there has been a rash of violence or other problems at a prison.

"It says that there's a new sheriff in town and that there are rules and that they are going to be followed," Angelone said. "I'm sure [France's] orders are: We want a safe environment."

But Angelone said taking firm control is not easy, especially at a prison such as the House of Correction, where about half the inmate population is housed in open dorms. He said it is unusual for a maximum-security prison to have open dorms rather than individual or double-bunked cells.

A union officials said that finding ways to fill nearly 50 vacant correctional officer positions at the Jessup prison is more important than switching wardens.

"I think the institution is in a crisis situation right now," said Ron Bailey, executive director of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 92.

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