New corrections chief has 30 years in field

April 02, 2008|By Tyeesha Dixon | Tyeesha Dixon,Sun reporter

Jack Kavanagh grew up with dreams of becoming a Baltimore City police officer. He was disappointed to find out he wouldn't make the cut because his eyesight wasn't good enough.

Perfect vision or not, Kavanagh needed a job after graduating from college, so he applied for an advertised position as an intake interviewer at the Baltimore City Jail in 1977.

He hasn't turned back since.

After a nearly 30-year corrections career, Kavanagh has been named director of the Howard County Department of Corrections, County Executive Ken Ulman announced last month. Kavanagh, 52, has served as acting director of the department since December, after 10-year director Melanie Pereira retired.

"When I interviewed Jack months ago, I felt he was the right person for this job, but we both wanted to make sure this situation was a good fit for all of us," Ulman said in a statement. "As I thought would be the case, Director Kavanagh has proved up to the challenge and then some."

As director, he is in charge of a 144-member staff that oversees about 200 inmates. He will also serve as warden of the Howard County Detention Center, where the average inmate stay is 90 days.

Kavanagh, a Maryland native who lives in Baltimore County, has been deputy director of the department since January 2003, responsible for oversight of security, staff training, emergency preparedness and compliance with correctional standards.

Before working in Howard County, he worked for the Maryland Division of Correction for 24 years, most recently as assistant commissioner at the division's headquarters.

He said the changeover to the director position has been smooth.

"I was quite familiar with the facility, and the staff has been cooperative," Kavanagh said. "It's been a pretty seamless transition."

One of Kavanagh's goals for the Howard County Detention Center is to continue with programs that will help inmates once they are released.

"You don't have good security without good programs, and you don't have good programs without good security," he said. "They go hand-in-hand. We put an emphasis on being proactive.

"The programs are where we get to have some intervention."

While implementing changes, Kavanagh said he has no interest in turning things upside-down at the department.

"In terms of philosophical changes, there are none," he said.

One aspect of the jail that he said he works hard to maintain is a clean and respectful atmosphere, as his predecessor did.

"Just because you're an inmate in jail doesn't mean you go cursing at people," he said.

In response to inmate suicides in recent years, Kavanagh said he and his staff have instituted changes to prevent more deaths.

He said a team of staff members - who include a counselor, correctional officer and member of the mental health staff - now performs "wellness checks" on each inmate once a week. Correctional officers also receive training on suicide awareness that must be renewed yearly, he said, and a Spanish-speaking officer meets with Hispanic inmates every week to ensure their needs are met.

"One of the things we stress is that it's important to engage inmates," Kavanagh said. "The more opportunities we have for face-to-face contact, the better it's going to be."

Kavanagh said he has requested an increase in mental health staff, which was added to the budget. Minor changes include improved lighting in some of the housing units and repainting much of the jail.

As of yesterday, inmates can no longer wear shoelaces.

"It's just one less thing people can hang themselves with," he said of the change.

Patricia Schupple, who has worked in corrections for 34 years, has replaced Kavanagh as deputy director. A Howard County resident, she served since 2004 as programs supervisor for the Howard County Department of Corrections. She also worked as warden for the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup.

Like Kavanagh, much of Schupple's career was in the state corrections system.

"It's a different dynamic, a different system," she said. "It's much more centered in the community," Schupple said of the county corrections department.

Kavanagh said at one point, he wanted to go to law school, but a "switch went off" one day that told him corrections was the field for him. He said he loves the field because "there's no two days alike."

"I thought it was something I was good at," he said. "What I've learned is there's a lot of good folks in this business, people with conviction and character. And I see a lot of that here."

He said he sees those good qualities especially in Howard County, where he estimates that 60 percent of the correctional staff has transferred from another jurisdiction for that reason.

"We have that reputation of a safe, orderly place," he said. "This is the kind of environment that attracts people."

Kavanagh said that even though he never thought he would be in corrections for so long, he has enjoyed helping people who need a second chance.

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