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Date Posted: 08:53:14 11/02/07 Fri
Patrick to select new chief of prisons
Washington official seen as an agent for changing focus
By Frank Phillips, Globe Staff | November 2, 2007
Governor Deval Patrick today is expected to appoint as corrections commissioner Harold W. Clarke, the top corrections official in the state of Washington, who has built a national reputation for improving prisons despite encountering controversy.
Officials who know Clarke, who previously ran Nebraska's prison system, said his appointment would mark a shift in Massachusetts away from the hard-nosed policies established during 16 years of Republican governors.
Clarke is at the "top of the heap" among national penal experts, with a record of reducing violence in prisons and professionalizing staff, said Martin Horn, New York City's top prison official and a specialist on prison reform.
Clarke has been criticized after incidents in which felons on post-release supervision killed police officers, and also for a controversial release of felons from overcrowded jails, but his reputation remains high, Horn said.
"He is a true professional with rock-solid integrity," Horn said.
Officials in Patrick's administration said Clarke accepted Patrick's offer to take the post late yesterday, making him the second African-American to lead the Massachusetts Department of Correction. His mandate, the officials said, will be to revamp a corrections department that has focused for years on tough-on-crime policies while cutting to a bare minimum training and reentry programs.
Former attorney general Scott Harshbarger, a member of Patrick's six-member selection panel, said Clarke is up to the job of overhauling a system that has been supervised under harsh policies articulated in 1991, when former governor William F. Weld vowed to "reintroduce Massachusetts prisoners to the joys of busting rocks."
"It will be a major shift in philosophy and approach, one that will balance top-flight professional leadership and public safety with effective reentry of inmates," Harshbarger said. "This is a major-league selection."
Until Clarke's name surfaced recently, the seven-member panel, headed by Secretary of Public Safety Kevin Burke, had struggled to find a replacement for Kathleen Dennehy, who was let go last spring. Clarke is expected to be paid about the same salary as Dennehy, $140,000 a year.
Clarke will manage a system that has 11,000 inmates, a $500 million budget, and about 5,000 staff members while dealing with one of the toughest public unions, the Massachusetts Corrections Officers Federation Union. The system has 18 facilities.
Clarke, a native of Panama who headed Nebraska's prison system for 14 years before taking over Washington's system in 2005, will be Massachusetts' first black commissioner in 33 years, since John O. Boone.
Clarke has come under fire in Washington since being appointed by Governor Chris Gregoire two years ago.
He faced a crisis this year when two freed felons under post-release supervision killed two Seattle police officers in separate car accidents, and another shot and killed a county sheriff.
In addition, a work-release program in Seattle this year faced an investigation after six workers were accused of sexual misconduct and falsifying drug tests.
At the same time, an infuriated Gregoire said that she was "outraged" when Clarke's department released 90 felons from county jails because of overcrowding.
Last summer, the leadership of the Washington Federation of State Workers called for a no-confidence vote in his management. Gregoire headed off a vote by the union membership.
Harshbarger said the selection panel looked at those issues and found nothing that would alarm its members about his management abilities.
He said he expects the same sort of resistance to change in Massachusetts, but that the state needed to move beyond the legacy of Willie Horton, the convicted murderer who, while on a weekend furlough in the 1980s, went to Maryland where he raped a woman and stabbed her male companion. National Republicans used the issue to help defeat Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential election.
"Is Willie Horton going to dominate our correctional philosophy forever?" Harshbarger said. "Some risk is always inherent. But the risk we have now is more expensive and more dangerous than a policy of being tough but with support programs for reentry."