MILFORD -- Kathleen M. Dennehy, the new commissioner of the Department of Correction, says she borrowed one idea for improving the state prison system from Filene's.
"When you walk into the lobby of a state prison on a visit, you should be able to know who the superintendent is, who the shift commander is," said Dennehy, walking around her desk at the state Correction Department headquarters to show off a prototype for new lobby signs that will be posted in each of the state's 18 prisons.
On a 3-by-2-foot steel panel were pictures of three Correction Department managers, along with their names and ranks, much in the way that Filene's, Stop & Shop, and other retail outlets post the names of managers, she said.
Dennehy, 49, who was named by Governor Mitt Romney last month to take one of the state's largest bureaucracies in a new direction, said the lobby signs are just the start.
During an interview Monday evening that stretched past 9 p.m., Dennehy ticked off a half-dozen changes she plans to make to create a "smarter, more humane" prison system.
The crisis that resulted Aug. 23 when defrocked priest John J. Geoghan was killed in his cell is expected to throw open the windows and let fresh air into a prison system largely closed off to the public and styled after Governor William F. Weld's 1990 campaign promise to reintroduce inmates to the "joys of busting rocks."
Leslie Walker, the head of a legal rights advocacy group for prisoners and a leading critic of the Department of Correction, said that Dennehy is attempting "a huge cultural shift and the introduction of accountability."
Has Walker been won over by Dennehy's planned changes?
"I'm cautiously very optimistic," said Walker, who as executive director of Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services missed no opportunity after Geoghan's death to point out the shortcomings of the state prison system.
In addition to the prototype lobby signs in her office, Dennehy broke out a box of name plates, saying that every one of the more than 230 managers in the system will soon be required to wear one. The lobby signs and name plates will help ensure greater accountability, putting the names and sometimes the faces of managers out there for everyone from inmates to visitors to see, Dennehy said.
Those changes may show that Dennehy is attentive to customer service. But, as Walker noted, the commissioner is not "fluffy."
One of the first orders she gave on the job was to strip more than 50 top managers of their state cars. Now, only eight managers, including Dennehy, have the right to drive their state cars home at night. The keys to the other vehicles were returned to the car pool or turned over to parole officers "more in need of the cars," she said.
Dennehy also set about to overhaul the department's regulations on disciplining inmates, and she surprised many prisoner advocates by inviting them to participate in the process. Prior to Dennehy's arrival, the advocates had been busy fighting off a Department of Correction move under her predecessor to bar all but a few from any access to prisoner disciplinary hearings.
Steve Kenneway, president of the 4,000-member prison guards union, said he is wary of Dennehy's efforts.
"You can't tell me the whole system is broken because Geoghan got murdered," said Kenneway, who wants hundreds of additional correction officers to be hired to improve security.
Dennehy arrived at the top post in the $430 million, 5,000-employee prison system well-versed in its challenges. A 28-year employee, she had been acting commissioner since Dec. 1, when Romney removed Michael T. Maloney as commissioner in the fallout after Geoghan's murder.
Geoghan, 68, whose alleged abuse of minors helped trigger the clergy sexual abuse scandal, was killed in a unit of the maximum-security Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center, a facility reserved for the most violent inmates. He was transferred there last year without adequate cause after being harassed and abused by guards in a medium-security prison, according to the findings of a three-member team of investigators empaneled by Romney last year.
Authorities say that Geoghan was beaten and strangled by Joseph L. Druce, an inmate known as one of the system's most troubled and violent individuals. Dennehy had served for several years as Maloney's top deputy, although Dennehy acknowledged in the interview that she and Maloney were often on a different wavelength. Just before Romney offered her the commissioner's job, Governor Craig Benson of New Hampshire asked Dennehy to take over that state's corrections system. Sean P. Murphy can be reached at email@example.com or at 617-929-7849.