Hard-line lawman making waves at city jail


April 08, 2010|By Peter Hermann | peter.hermann@baltsun.com

Until two weeks ago, detainees at the Baltimore City jail were wearing street clothes, despite rules forbidding casual attire.

Previous administrations did not enforce the regulation. But after Wendell M. "Pete" France took over as commissioner of pretrial detention for Maryland's prison system in January, he ordered everyone at the state-run detention center and Central Booking to don jumpsuits.

The inmates protested, and last month they began setting small fires in trash cans that soon numbered a dozen. France ordered a lockdown of the city jail - which holds about 4,500 arrestees awaiting trial - prohibiting visits and limiting recreation time as correctional officers conducted a cell-by-cell search.

The lockdown continues two weeks later, and France makes no apologies.

"He's the new sheriff in town," said Rick Binetti, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. "He's imposing some necessary discipline."

Relatives of people detained have called The Baltimore Sun to complain over the past several days, saying their loved ones are being kept in cells, denied visits and stripped of shampoo, lotions and soap.

Deborah Brown said her husband, Alfonso, has been "locked in his cell for 2 1/2 weeks. He's gotten out only four times."

That's unfair, she said, because "he wasn't even in the part of the jail where all the stuff was going on, and he's made to suffer."

Unable to make bail after being arrested on a charge of selling three gel caps of heroin on Aisquith Street, Alfonso Brown is being held in the detention center at least until his next scheduled court appearance, in May.

France ordered the switch from street clothes to jumpsuits because conformity "is better for security reasons," Binetti said. While the commissioner is unlikely to yield on the dress code, the restrictions on family visits and personal items could be lifted this week once the search is completed, the spokesman said.

The directives should come as no surprise to anyone who knows France, who holds a master's degree from the Johns Hopkins University and spent 27 years as a Baltimore police officer before joining the corrections department a decade ago.

As a police officer, France commanded the most violent district, the Eastern, and oversaw the homicide unit during some of the city's most murderous years.

In 1995, France publicly questioned the wisdom of a court commissioner who released a woman on bail after his officers found four pounds of heroin and an Uzi machine pistol in her apartment, prompting the commissioner to be fired for his poor judgment.

One day in 1996, tired of addicts ignoring his officers' pleas to disperse, he ordered 150 people arrested on loitering charges, not caring whether the cases didn't stick. "I've got nuns over on Brentwood Avenue who can't walk to the school they teach at," he said at the time. "I'm not going to have it."

In 1997, after his 18-year-old son was shot while driving through a West Baltimore intersection, France, keeping vigil at Maryland Shock Trauma Center, lashed out at the judiciary.

"We don't need any more programs," France said at the time. "We need to stop with the gimmicks. When people violate the law, hold them accountable and cut out the foolishness. Stop letting the whole criminal justice system be the mockery it's becoming.

"The real solution is not in the arrests. It's what's happening after," he said. "Time and time again, people have gone through the arrest cycle only to be right back in our face. Maybe if a judge's son gets shot - that would be horrible, but they could feel what I'm feeling. I'm tired."

Old words that, if you ask any of France's successors, still have meaning today. But the corrections chief has never minced words and has never been afraid to speak out. He wanted order on the streets he was trying to clean up. And now he wants order in the jail where people await judgment.

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