Boston Globe, 06/20/01

Suffolk Jail Audit Group is Faulted: Critics to Demand New Review Panel

By Francie Latour,

To prison chiefs and jail sheriffs nationwide, it is considered the Good Housekeeping seal of approval for corrections, the gold star officials tout as proof they stand head and shoulders above the rest in incarceration.

But a closer look at the accreditation program of the American Correctional Association -- the trade group chosen by Suffolk County Sheriff Richard J. Rouse to investigate reports of systemic abuse and mismanagement in his department -- shows that it has routinely accredited facilities beset by charges of abuse or poor conditions. The facilities include one that was put into receivership following a federal lawsuit, and another set to close this year, and others found by courts to be operating in violation of the constitution.

At the same time, the man chosen by the American Correctional Association to lead the review into Rouse's department presides over a Nebraska corrections department that was itself under investigation by state officials, and is undergoing reform for failing to meet minimum standards of health care to inmates. The director, Harold Clarke, said he believes he is still qualified to lead the Suffolk task force.

And as the association's auditors returned to Boston yesterday to reexamine their glowing review of the Nashua Street Jail in the wake of last month's federal indictments of seven officers on brutality charges, a Globe review of the American Correctional Association's 2000 audit showed that it gave the jail the identical score that Rouse's officials gave themselves in a pre-audit self-evaluation the association asks its clients to complete.

Both the self-evaluation and the association's audit arrived at the same score, a 98.96, and each found exactly four categories where the jail was not in compliance. Critics say the results exemplify a voluntary accreditation process that offers rubber-stamp approval and disguises sometimes egregious conditions behind prison walls.

So troubled is the process that a national corrections expert who helped design the original standards for American Correctional Association audits has joined inmate advocates in questioning the value and credibility of the accreditations.

"I'm embarrassed sometimes when I'm called to go to some of these facilities and I see ACA certificates hanging on the walls," said Dale Sechrest, a criminologist who directed the association's standards program from 1975 to 1984, and who now serves as an expert witness and consultant on prison conditions nationwide.

"The process could be far more rigorous than it is," said Sechrest, who teaches at California State University in San Bernardino. "If it's not a rigorous process, what good is it?"

In the six years since the association began conducting audits, Sechrest said, he could remember only one facility that was denied accreditation.

Echoing Sechrest's criticism of the accreditation's limitations, a coalition of criminal justice professors, corrections experts, clergy, and civil rights attorneys led by Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner will today call for an independent commission similar to the St. Clair Commission that brought systemic reforms to Boston's police department a decade ago.

The group includes the former mental health director and former legal adviser for the sheriff's department, as well as a criminologist who belongs to the American Correctional Association. That criminologist questions whether the group should lead a probe into allegations of sexual misconduct and brutality by Suffolk County prison guards, as well as mismanagement at the sheriff's department, documented in a Globe series last month.

The seriousness of the charges, and the vulnerability of inmates and of detainees awaiting trial, require an independent commission empaneled by a government agency, Turner said yesterday.

"The ACA investigation is not one that is appropriate for what we have here: concerns about management, lack of governmental oversight of the department, and the reality of continuing brutality," Turner said. "That should be made clear by the fact that last year it investigated Nashua Street and gave it an excellent rating, and yet months later a federal grand jury indicts officers for a pattern of brutality.

Richard M. Lombardi, a spokesman for Rouse, said yesterday the department was moving forward with the American Correctional Association review. Lombardi said he could not comment about the effort to empanel a St. Clair-type commission.

Critics of the association's accreditations have charged that the audit fees have allowed managers of controversial prisons to all but buy a seal of approval that serves to inflate the reputations of the facilities, cushion them against lawsuits and fend off regulation by outside government agencies.

Citing a policy of confidentiality, Jeff Washington, the deputy director of the association, said he could not identify facilities that were rejected for accredition, or whose accreditation was suspended or revoked. He said some facilities have been rejected, but that the employee who keeps that data was unavailable yesterday.

According to officials and inmate advocates in Louisiana, the association never revoked accreditation of the Tallulah Correctional Center for Youth, which settled a lawsuit brought by the US Department of Justice last year and was placed under state control.

Months after the center opened in 1995, a federal judge placed Tallulah under a state of emergency because of riots. The next year, in 1996, the American Correctional Association accredited the facility, according to the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, an inmate advocacy group. That same year, the Justice Department found that 28 children were treated at hospitals in one week for broken bones or other injuries. One doctor testified that he treated eight children for ruptured eardrums in one day, allegedly after they were beaten by guards.

"The fact that a place like this had been accredited, compared to the reality of the conditions of confinement for children, led us to the inescapable conclusion that it was a sham," said David Utter, director of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana.

In 1998, the association also accredited The Northeast Ohio Correctional Center, an adult male facility in Youngstown. A year later, the prison paid $1.65 million to inmates and agreed to a series of reforms as part of a class-action suit against guards for brutality.

The same year the association granted the accreditation, two men were stabbed to death, six inmates escaped from the facility, and dozens of assaults on inmates were reported.

A prison spokeswoman, Susan Hart, answered the criticism by pointing to the glowing accreditation, saying, "In the corrections industry, this is a level of accountability that represents the highest standards in the world."