County detention center chief nears the end of a long career

Department of Corrections director will retire Dec. 31 after three decades in the field to work in private sector

December 16, 2007|By Tyeesha Dixon | Tyeesha Dixon,Sun reporter

Melanie C. Pereira reached over to pick up Jolly Rancher hard-candy wrappers on an otherwise spotless hallway floor as she recently walked through the Howard County Detention Center in Jessup.

"I never ask anybody to do anything I wouldn't do myself," said Pereira, director of the county Department of Corrections. "That's part of leadership."

After 10 years as head of the county jail, Pereira plans to officially retire Dec. 31 -- her last workday will be Tuesday -- ending a nearly 33-year career in Maryland corrections. Pereira was the first -- and is currently the only -- female warden of a county jail in Maryland, said Lamonte E. Cooke, president of the Maryland Correctional Administrators Association and warden of the Queen Anne's County Detention Center.

FOR THE RECORD - Because of incorrect information provided to The Sun, a Dec. 16 article gave the incorrect number of female adminstrators of county jails in Maryland. There are four. The Sun regrets the error.

"It's truly been a pleasure," said Pereira, whose position as warden of the county detention center is the longest of her career. "I've enjoyed it immensely."

Pereira, 53, will begin a new job next month as senior director of business development and integration for Conmed Management Healthcare Inc., a La Plata-based firm that contracts health care services for correctional facilities nationwide.

Her responsibilities with Conmed will include risk management, as well as helping decide how to integrate new clients, said Richard W. Turner, president and chief executive officer.

"She's going to be very involved in the operations of the company," Turner said. "She's going to be a real key player in this organization."

Pereira said her departure has nothing to do with an increase of suicides by inmates at the detention center in recent years. Five deaths have occurred at the center since April 2005. Four were by hanging, including the most recent in July.

"Absolutely not," Pereira said when asked if she is retiring because of the deaths. "A business opportunity came along, and it's an opportunity I didn't want to pass up. To everything there's a season. This is my season."

In response to the deaths, Pereira created a suicide-prevention program and removed brass handles from bunk beds and cages from sprinkler heads -- items to which inmates could tie bed sheets to hang themselves. All corrections officers were trained to use defibrillators, and Pereira increased the number of interviews with Spanish-speaking inmates and those showing behavior problems to help prevent them from feeling isolated. Cameras were installed in the medical facility.

Pereira said she is glad she has accomplished a major goal at the jail: taking a holistic look at the facility and implementing programs that benefit inmates and the public.

One of the first programs she started was a series of life-skills education courses almost nine years ago, she said. The jail works with Howard Community College to teach inmates resume-writing and job-interview techniques. She also enhanced women's programming by creating a trauma and addiction program for women, along with parent programs.

Pereira said the jail became the first facility in the state to adopt the Victim Information and Notification Everyday program, which allows crime victims to get information about offenders 24 hours a day. A 40-hour-a-week psychology social worker now goes to the facility to help inmates with mental health issues.

"I think she was a wonderful person, had a wonderful background in corrections and did a wonderful job with the correctional center there," said former County Executive Charles I. Ecker, who hired Pereira for the position.

"You have to be strict and be understanding," added Ecker, now superintendent of the Carroll County school system. "You have to really get along with people."

Pereira helped start Girls Scouts Beyond Bars in 1992, the first troop in a correctional facility, while warden at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women. The program allows children to visit their inmate mothers. It started as a pilot program and has been implemented in several states.

"She's taken the time to make some very positive changes there, both on the administrative level and on the personnel level," said Cooke, of the Maryland Correctional Administrators Association. "All that experience has really brought that agency forward."

Pereira said that although the job was difficult at times, she has not regretted a day.

"I got into the business, and I enjoyed it," she said. "It's more than a business -- it's a calling. You have an opportunity to make a difference in people's lives and an opportunity for change.

"We do a heck of a lot of good because we have the ability to impact people's lives positively. That's not being a bleeding-heart liberal. That's being responsive, responsible. It makes good, sound social sense."

Her biggest accomplishment at the jail has been cultivating and mentoring employees, she said.

"We have an excellent staff that works tirelessly each and every day," she said.

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