The Washington Post
Saturday, January 3, 2004; Page A21
Clueless at the Department of Corrections
By Colbert I. King
Want to know why it's hard to take city officials seriously? Corrections chief Odie Washington and Pamela Chase, head of the Fraternal Order of Police-Department of Corrections, are hot and bothered about the shooting at the supposedly weapons-free D.C. jail, which left four inmates wounded. Fine. But two weeks after a small-caliber handgun was smuggled into the prison and fired in broad daylight, Washington and Chase are clueless about how the gun got there and who used it.
Beyond agreeing that the gun was discovered after the fact in a cellblock trash can, Washington and Chase sound about as informed as my uncle Harold, and he died decades ago.
Asked how the weapon made its way into the facility, Washington casts a wide net, claiming that drugs and weapons are smuggled in by visitors, contractors and even his own corrections employees. Yeah, well, thanks, director.
Chase, to no one's surprise, rises to the defense of her union members -- worker solidarity über alles. In response to a question from Post reporter Neely Tucker regarding the "allegation that guards are often the conduit for illegal items within the jail," Chase said: "There hasn't been anything to substantiate that statement." (Does that mean "catch us if you can"?)
With that exchange of views between corrections muck-a-mucks on the record, it now falls to your humble servant to contribute a little something to the dialogue.
Please meet my sources, who wish to be known only as "Purple Rain." They are three women on the outside who have men on the inside of the jail and stories to tell about correctional officers' dalliances with the inmates they are supposed to guard. The Purple Rain collective was outraged by Chase's statement denying knowledge of her workers' involvement in smuggling at the jail.
I took the liberty of sharing their accounts with a corrections headquarters official this week for his reaction (which comes later). I now share their tales with you. Let's hear from them individually:
First, Purple Rain No. 1.
She identified a corrections officer -- reported here as K -- who was dating inmate M. K reportedly smuggled cocaine inside the jail by putting it in a container of Chinese food. However, K, forgetting what she had done, went to the microwave to heat up her purchase. "It blew up, smelling up the whole facility," Rain 1 said. Officer K is no longer in the jail's employ, said Rain 1.
After checking around, the headquarters official with whom I spoke confirmed the identities of both the corrections officer and the inmate. He said the officer was separated from the department two years ago in a reduction in force, and stated that there was general knowledge among staff he consulted that the officer and inmate were indeed involved in an intimate relationship. The official unfortunately could not confirm the cocaine account before this column went to press. (So much juice, so little time.) Neither could he explain why the officer's compromising relationship with an inmate wasn't cause for her immediate dismissal.
Purple Rain No. 2 wanted it known that a corrections officer, a woman in her forties (name withheld by me), called Rain 2's home to say that Rain 2's boyfriend didn't want her anymore and that he was in love with the officer. Rain 2, who had lived with the boyfriend before he was locked up, told him about the call. He chastised the officer for calling his home. "He told her that she was being used by him to get what he needed while in prison and to not call his [expletive] house again," reported Rain 2. That "put-down" destroyed the officer emotionally, causing her to repeatedly beg the inmate to keep their relationship -- as in hope -- alive.
Which gets us to Purple Rain No. 3.
She was talking on the phone with her D.C. jail inmate husband, who told her he was drinking "Belv" (which, for the uninitiated, is Belvedere vodka and orange juice). Rain 3 asks, "That wasn't [there] on his visiting day, so who brought it in that day?" A fair question to which I have no answer -- including why visiting day should make a difference. But I have a strong suspicion how he got juiced up.
Okay, let's dispense with the anecdotes and rumors and get to the point.
Anyone who's spent a hot minute in Corrections -- and I've been writing about that department for this page in excess of a decade -- knows there are dirty officers among the jail staff. Don't get me wrong. There are plenty of dedicated men and women on the department staff. They labor under difficult circumstances in critically important jobs, and most perform well. But that there are officers in Corrections who have sullied their badges is not idle speculation; it's a fact, amply reported by The Post and other news organizations, and backed up by arrests and convictions.
How do guns, drugs and shanks get into the jail? Sure, some items make their way over the prison wall, tossed by guys with arms so strong they should be trying out for the Redskins. And, yes, maybe an enterprising visitor manages to slip an illegal item past a guard to an inmate. But actually, that's hard to do, because visitors and inmates are separated by thick glass and can speak with each other only by phone. In addition to the no-contact policy, visitor areas are searched before and after the visits take place.
Officers in uniform, on the other hand, are not subjected to the same rigorous checks, no matter what the rules require. That allows the few bad-apple officers, compromised by sexual relationships or personal friendships, or driven by out-and-out greed, to succumb to pleas to smuggle in drugs and other contraband.
The consequences of their unlawful behavior are enormous. These dirty officers not only weaken the jail's security system, they also put the lives of their fellow officers and the inmate population at large in jeopardy. And they cause others to pay dearly. An illegal weapon or a stabbing or shooting can cause the entire 2,500-inmate population to be locked down in cellblocks for days and weeks until the weapon or assailant is found. That can also mean a ban on family visits and phone calls, no showers -- a complete cutoff of communication with the outside world. All because someone, just one individual, broke the rules. It's sickening when the violator is a keeper of the keys.
What's even worse is when the powers that be in Corrections don't even know when they have been royally had.