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While much attention has been paid to Michelle Rhee and her not-yet-panel-approved replacement, Mayor Vincent Gray quietly showed the door to another District government reformer last week. Without fanfare let alone a press conference, the new mayor released Department of Corrections Director Devon Brown last Tuesday. Talk about deliberative!
Brown had served as director for close to five years and in many ways had proven just as tough and reform-minded as Rhee. Although there are zero documentaries, Time magazine cover stories, and WaPo mash notes posing as editorials to attest to Brown’s savior status, he certainly resurrected a troubled agency once mired in lawsuits, badly trained corrections officers, erroneously releases, and embarrassing performances before the D.C. Council’s judiciary committee.
Even that committee’s chair, At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson, considers himself a Brown fan.”The administration was looking for a change,” Mendelson explains. “I know that the transition team was not warm about him. I disagreed with the transition team.”
While Mendelson admitted that Brown was not big on transparency or, well, even admitting problems—-the big issues tended to get addressed. “The complaints would get fixed…The jail was accredited under him, the number of lawsuits have gone down, erroneous releases have gone down, the population has gone down.” Under Brown, the D.C. Jail also adopted a more progressive policy towards transgender inmates and established serious HIV testing among the incarcerated.
Phil Fornaci, executive director of the DC Prisoners’ Legal Services Project, thinks that Brown performed well above his predecessors. “I had a lot of conflicts with Mr. Brown—-many, many very serious conflicts with him. That said, I would not have supported him being fired. I have lived through the last couple DOC directors… They did not have the most integrity. [Brown] had a lot of good ideas. I don’t think he was dishonest.”
Still, Brown had to contend with the D.C. Jail—a facility that is a magnet for problems. In 2009, many cell doors wouldn’t lock and as a result there were a rash of inmate stabbings. Very early in Brown’s tenure, there were two troubling suicides. And finally, there was one issue that perhaps had an impact on Gray’s decision to sack Brown: He never talked to the press, and he was incredibly prone to holding grudges. Says Fornaci: “He did not take criticism at all. Any slight against him, he would hold on to it for years.”
Fornaci thinks Gray is going to have a hard time replacing Brown. “I don’t know how he’s going to find a replacement,” he says. “Gray’s on his own on that one…It’s kind of a no-win job. People who are really good will know better than to come here.”
Gray may already realize this. The Gray administration has installed Thomas Hoey as the DOC’s interim director. Hoey was the DOC’s IT guy.