Corrections secretary

1939-2008:

Ex-city jail warden held Cabinet post 3 years

July 01, 2008|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,Sun Reporter

Gordon C. Kamka's philosophy of prison reform earned him enemies. As Maryland's corrections secretary, he played down lockups and spoke out for community halfway houses and education for the incarcerated.

He held a state Cabinet seat for three controversy-filled years before resigning in 1981. He died last week at his Parkville home at age 68. His stepmother, Betty Kamka, said she found him dead Wednesday at his apartment. She said he had been treated for prostate cancer, but a cause of death had not been determined yesterday.

"He was a guy who took a chance on people," said Marvin Robbins, a friend and former executive director of the Inmate Grievance Office. "He believed they could do better in life."

FOR THE RECORD - An obituary published yesterday for Gordon C. Kamka, who was warden of the old Baltimore City Jail and secretary of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services in the 1970s and early 1980s, gave an incorrect date for services. They were held yesterday.
The Sun regrets the error.

Mr. Kamka was a criminal justice consultant until his death - and according to his resume, he had inspected more than 400 jails and prisons in the U.S., Canada and Europe.

He had been warden of the old Baltimore City Jail from 1973 to 1979. He was secretary of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services from 1979 to 1981.

Born in Baltimore and raised on Gough Street, he was a 1958 graduate of City College and was a quarterback on the football team. He earned a bachelor's degree in psychology at the University of Maryland, College Park and a master's degree from the State University of New York.

A captain in the Army during the Vietnam War, he received the Bronze Star for "directing his troops during persistent enemy rocket attacks at the Da Nang Air Base."

A 1973 Sun profile, written when he had just been named the warden of the Baltimore City Jail, described him as "a complex composite of a careful, methodical and seemingly unflappable military man and an urbane intellectual who studied psychology and spends considerable time at lectures and concerts."

"Gordon was a charismatic leader, an excellent advocate for what he wanted to see done," said Nevett Steele Jr., an attorney who lives in Glyndon. "He felt it was important to train, educate and prepare inmates for release so they would have a trade. Until the time of his death, he continued to be a force in correction issues throughout the country."

After six years at the Baltimore post, Gov. Harry R. Hughes chose Mr. Kamka as state corrections secretary. Mr. Kamka, who faced a federal order to reduce prison overcrowding, soon encountered criticism as he advocated smaller, community-based prisons, work-release and early-release programs.

By 1981, he had replaced 11 of 13 prison wardens and cut the prison population to 7,500, but his liberal policies infuriated members of the state legislature, as well as Baltimore police Commissioner Donald D. Pomerleau and William Swisher, the Baltimore state's attorney.

In what at the time was seen as a highly publicized retaliatory move, Mr. Pomerleau and Mr. Swisher arrested 27 inmates who had been released for part of the day, some to take classes outside the minimum-security Brockbridge Correctional Facility. The officials said they wanted to show that Mr. Kamka was allowing dangerous people out into the community for part of the day.

The allegation was that prisoners Mr. Kamka was letting out of prison were committing crimes ranging from prison escape to murder. Escape charges against 20 of the inmates were dismissed by Circuit Judge Robert M. Bell, who is now the chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals.

"The controversy here is a dramatic example of a national debate between those who believe in punishment and building more jails and those who favor alternatives to incarceration because they believe that imprisonment alone will not affect crime," a 1982 article in The New York Times said.

Mr. Kamka resigned as corrections secretary in 1981, days after the arrest of the 27 inmates. A Sun article noted that his penal philosophy had become a "albatross" on the Hughes administration.

"Gordon was a very progressive prison official," Mr. Hughes said yesterday. "I think he was misunderstood by the legislature. It was a time when there was a lot of hysteria about prison riots."

Mr. Kamka set up a consulting business and became an expert witness on prisons. He worked in Texas, Connecticut and West Virginia, where he also had a farm and raised goats.

Throughout his life Mr. Kampa competed in numerous marathons. He also snowboarded, skied and rafted.

"He had an energy and optimism about him," said Thomas Gilmore, a friend and colleague from Philadelphia. "He was relentlessly upbeat. He had an amazing amount of humanness. He championed the rights of everybody."

Mr. Kamka had some personal setbacks. In 1997, he served 60 days in a jail in West Virginia for setting fire to his car and his girlfriend's clothes in what the Associated Press described then as an "alcohol-fueled rage."

Services will be held at 11 a.m. tomorrow at the Lassahn Funeral Home, 11750 Belair Road in Kingsville.

Survivors include two sons, Brandt Kamka of Baltimore and Christian Kamka of Lake Mary, Fla.; two daughters, Thanh Ashman of Looneyville, W.Va., and Caitlin Downey Kamka of Charleston, W.Va.; a brother, Roger Kamka of Middle River; and five grandchildren. His marriages to Joyce Anderson and Mary Downey ended in divorce.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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