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Prison administration on the clock for getting things right

August 31, 2008|By TIM ROWLAND

When you sign up to be a correctional officer, you expect abuse and humiliation from the inmates; you don't bargain on similar treatment from the guys who are supposed to be on your own team.

Imagine coming into work and having to pass through some sort of esoteric, drug-detection gizmo. Then, as your co-workers watch, you are snatched from the line and taken to a room where you must disrobe in front of a supervisor and prove you are not harboring drugs in areas of your person where such packages could be harbored.

You come up clean, but the damage has been done. What a start to your day. It almost makes you look forward to the rest of the shift, where all you have to deal with is the insult and abuse of convicted felons.

It does need to be acknowledged up front that the prisons are a different world, one that few on the outside have any hope of understanding. It's a hierarchy of gangs, drugs or other contraband that serves as the currency for protection and a population that has nothing better to do than think up innovative ways to sneak stuff in and hide it (there's a story in another jurisdiction of shivs - thin strips of metal - actually being painted onto the cell walls by a cunning work detail).

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Corrections Secretary Gary Maynard wrote this week that the searches were precipitated by drugs in the prison that led to two overdoses, one fatal. While one may feel little sympathy for the inmates, the safety of the staff has to be considered too, and for this reason alone, inmates and drugs are an obviously bad mix.

In the broad world of corrections, a few bad apples have been found to be ferrying contraband into the prisons. So how do you catch the few who are guilty without humiliating the majority who are innocent? How to you maintain the threat without meting out unjust punishment?

Obviously the IONSCAN doesn't appear to be the answer; it fingered people who were not carrying drugs. One source said it was dialed to an ultra-sensitive setting, and that the staging area was held in a room where dogs were taught to sniff for drugs. It also seem obvious that what "works" in Baltimore may not work here.

Sensibilities are different, the workforce is different. The Division of Corrections has a tough enough time attracting good people to the prisons as it is. Many good, more experienced officers got out years ago.

Now here's the rub: What normal person in his or her right mind is going to be tempted to apply for a job at the prisons if they know they may be subjected to - to this? If they were looking for a good recruiting tool, the strip search wasn't it.

Dels. Chris Shank and LeRoy Myers have properly gone to bat for the officers, with this sound argument: Let's eliminate all other sources of contraband first, before we go pulling down the pants of innocent officers.

Their protests won a letter from Maynard, admitting that the searches were mishandled and promising accountability:

"(W)hile properly intentioned, this particular operation fell short. The hastily organized implementation of these procedures caused stress and embarrassment to some very fine employees. My promise to them, along with Commissioner Stouffer's, is that it won't happen again."

Maynard doesn't necessarily say the searches won't happen again, just that improper implementation by local administrators won't happen again.

And in fact, ruling out future searches is a promise that Maynard cannot make. The only thing predictable about prisons is their unpredictability. You can't toss away a tool that some unforeseen circumstance may make absolutely necessary. Strict order and strict control are the foundation of a working prison system.

Officers were understandably cool toward Maynard's response, but a couple of things should give them comfort: First, when was the last time a prison administrator - or any government administrator for that matter - so candidly admitted an error? I can't think of too many secretaries of anything in the Ehrlich, Glendening or, heaven forfend, Schaefer administrations who would have come out and said, "Yup, we botched that one, we promise to get it right the next time."

This has to count for something.

Second, from a purely civilian standpoint, I can't recall any government appointee who has built more political capital in a shorter period of time. Maynard strikes me as innovative, straightforward and professional - in short, a far cry from some of the administrators who have held prison posts in the past.

Corrections officers have every right to feel indignant. And for now, at least, Maynard has the right to receive the benefit of the doubt in his ability to shore up a mistake under his watch. Officers and administrators have enough strain as it is, without letting this poison the water for the next however-many years.

Even good administrations make mistakes. What separates the good administrators from the best administrators is that the best admit those mistakes and don't let them happen again.

The proof will come with time. If these mistakes are not repeated, corrections officers might find they have that rarest of bosses - one who listens. If that happens, this morale buster could eventually be turned into a morale booster.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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