Prisoners and Politics

Less than three months ago, on a dazzlingly bright Sunday afternoon, Donald Manning and I stood outside a church in Liberty City discussing the bribery scandal enveloping his long-time friend County Commissioner James Burke. The just-concluded religious service had turned into a rally of sorts for the embattled commissioner, and Manning, director of the county's corrections department, seemed genuinely moved by the outpouring of support bestowed upon Burke. As the congregation dispersed and the commissioner headed home, the conversation turned to the beleaguered jail system.

The Miami Herald had just published a critical article on the prevalence of violence among guards. Channel 10 had been hammering away at the jail for more than a year regarding the department's inability to monitor its house-arrest program. And in March, I wrote a cover story entitled "Jailhouse Rumble," which chronicled the racial and ethnic tensions among correctional officers and the struggle for control of the department. At the time of the New Times story, Manning was the interim director, but shortly thereafter he became permanent, the department's third director in less than three years.

"Things are improving," he said confidently as members of the choir filed past. "We're moving forward. You should come out and do another story on the progress were making."

Manning's optimism was apparently not shared by his boss, County Manager Armando Vidal, who last week stripped the corrections chief of his authority by appointing a ten-member task force to oversee jail operations and assigning day-to-day management of the department to Assistant County Manager Dean Taylor. Manning retains the title of director and is a member of the task force, but he is as powerless as the inmates under his care.

No other governmental department in Dade County is as politicized and racially divided as corrections, problems that were only exacerbated by Vidal when he appointed Manning director in April. Among county administrators, corrections has long been considered a "black" department, meaning the director must be an African American, in the same way that the position of county manager is now viewed as a Cuban post.

In naming Manning, the manager had to jump him over several more qualified candidates, most notably the department's second-in-command, Ann Vendrell, who is Hispanic. Manning had never worked in a jail as a guard and had never undergone the training required of all correctional officers. He was a civilian employee who supervised, among other things, the troubled house-arrest program.

If Manning lacked experience, he made up for it in political contacts. In addition to attending the same church as Burke, Manning had also been the commissioner's campaign manager. When Vidal named him interim director in October 1995, and again in April of this year when he made the appointment permanent, the manager's main interest was self-preservation. Because the manager served at the pleasure of the county commission, it was Vidal's responsibility to keep commissioners happy with his job performance. One way to please Burke was to promote Manning.

Today, however, Vidal's priorities are different. The county commission no longer has the power to fire the county manager; only Mayor Alex Penelas can do that.

Elected in October, Penelas has declared that his first major project will be an anti-crime program dubbed "Safe Streets, Clean Sweep." The initiative will have cops working overtime for six months to round up criminals, an effort that, it is estimated, will generate more than 3000 felony arrests. But the plan has one significant weakness: It does not provide additional jail space for all those freshly swept-up criminals. Because Dade County's jails are already overcrowded, Penelas has announced that he will begin double-bunking inmates at certain facilities, a move that will undoubtedly prompt a lawsuit from attorneys representing the inmates. It will also place a great deal of pressure on jail staff and bring a new level of scrutiny to the department's operations.

As a result, the first person caught in Operation Clean Sweep was none other than Donald Manning. As embarrassing as that might be for Manning, it should be even more embarrassing for County Manager Armando Vidal.

As much a politician as any commissioner, Vidal was perfectly content to ignore the problems in corrections and to promote Manning as long as it was politically expedient for him to do so. But now that the mayor's pet project (and by extension Vidal's job) is on the line , the corrections department has suddenly moved to the top of the manager's agenda.

Vidal's actions have sent confusing and contradictory messages. For instance, why has Dean Taylor been placed in charge of the task force and day-to-day operations instead of Ari Rivera, who for years had been the assistant county manager responsible for overseeing corrections? The most obvious answer is that Rivera is Hispanic and Taylor is black. Given the tradition of corrections being a so-called black department, Vidal may have been averse to sparking a war with the jail's black officers, who fear a Cuban takeover of their department.

In light of Taylor's limited experience with corrections, Vidal couldn't rely on him to lead the department, so he surrounded him with a task force whose key members include G.T. Arnold, an Anglo who is deputy director of the Metro-Dade Police Department, and Ann Vendrell, the 21-year veteran Vidal passed over to appoint Manning.

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