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Fatal Justice: The New Maryland

It's a state already steeped in heritage--birthplace of The Star Spangled Banner, home to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, and site of the bloody Civil War battle at Antietam. But now Maryland is raising a new legacy: a system of dangerous and deadly prisons.

Much of the scrutiny directed at the Maryland Division of Correction (DOC) has stemmed from two recent high-profile homicides. In one, a prisoner was choked to death on a prison bus under the noses of five apparently torpid guards. His body was not discovered until the bus arrived at its destination. The death has resulted in the firing of three guards and a review of the DOC's transportation protocols.

In the other, a cabal of riot-clad guards killed a prisoner while performing a violent cell extraction. Numerous procedures and policies were violated, and signs of a cover-up abound. The prisoner's family has filed a lawsuit against the DOC. Both deaths have sparked calls for reform among lawmakers and prisoner advocates.

Death On A Bus

It was pitch-black inside the prison bus as it rolled down Highway 70 in the pre-dawn hours of February 2, 2005. Onboard, the killer readied for the attack, sucking in his stomach to loosen the chain around his waist. The victim sat just in front, pinned to his seat by another prisoner. Slipping the loosened chain over the victim's head, The killer sat down pulling the kid's head backwards over his seat, choking him," an unidentified prisoner witness wrote in a letter to his family. I could hear the killer tell him, It's okay. Just go to sleep now.'
The kid" was Phillip E. Parker Jr., one of 35 prisoners returning from the courthouse in Hagerstown to the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center (MCAC), a supermax prison in Baltimore. Parker, 20, had been sentenced to three years in prison for committing a robbery with a broken pellet gun. He had about a year to go when he was murdered.
Also on the bus was Kevin G. Johns Jr., 22, a twice-convicted killer who had pledged to kill again unless he received psychiatric help. Johns' propensity for violence was known. In February 2002 he was convicted of murdering a male relative and sentenced to 35 years. According to prosecutors, Johns strangled his uncle with a belt, and after finding him still alive, tried to cut off his head with a rusty saw. Johns committed a second murder in January 2004 while serving out his sentence at the Maryland Correctional Training Center. This time he strangled his 16-year-old cellmate, Armad Cloude.

On February 1, 2005, Johns was sentenced to life without parole for murdering Cloude. At the hearing Johns requested assignment to the Patuxent Institution's program for mentally ill prisoners, telling the judge he would likely kill again without psychiatric care. Parker was one of four MCAC prisoners to testify at the hearing on Johns' behalf. DOC can't give him the treatment he needs for all his mental problems," Parker told the court. He gets really paranoid. He gots a really short temper, right." Still, Washington County Circuit Judge Frederick C. Wright III refused to assign Johns to Patuxent.

Parker was killed on the return trip to Baltimore early the next morning. Five guards rode on the bus, but none noticed the attack. Two of the guards were seated up front in a cage behind the driver. Two more sat in a cage at the rear--no more than 10 feet from where Parker was murdered. At one point, a guard in the back reportedly heard a commotion and switched on his flashlight. The guard noticed Johns standing in the aisle and saw blood on him, but couldn't tell if anything was wrong because the bus's interior light was broken. Rather than earn his pay, however, he did nothing. Parker's body was discovered only after the bus arrived at MCAC around 4 a.m.

Parker's father, Phillip E. Parker Sr., said he doesn't understand how the murder went undetected. I'm sure he was kicking with everything he could when he was being choked to death," he said. One possibility is that the guards were sleeping, according to some former Maryland prisoners. That's what they do: They sleep on the way up and sleep on the way back," said Norman D. Chester Jr., 33, who served a six year sentence for robbery. Chester said he rode the bus to court in Baltimore dozens of times and often the only person awake was the driver. Craig Davidson, 40, who spent three years in Maryland prisons, said his experience on the buses was similar.

Parker's father also wondered how a properly shackled prisoner could have strangled someone; so did Chester and Davidson. You have what's called a three-piece restraint. I don't see how it could be done," Chester said. This three-piece restraint--required for all prisoners during transport--includes leg irons, handcuffs, waist chains, padlocks and handcuff covers," according to DOC policy.

Another reason the attack may have gone unnoticed, the former prisoners said, is that loud music regularly blasted from the radio during the trips.
But lazy guards, broken lights, and loud music aside, just seating Johns with other prisoners was a serious violation of DOC policy. All inmates identified as security alerts or who require special handling" are to be placed in one of two segregation cages" at the front of the bus, the policy states. Johns' statements in court should have absolutely" triggered the provision, said Ed Rothstein, a board member of the Maryland Association of Correctional and Security Employees. But the transport guards were not apprised of Johns' threats, he said. I don't know what supervision was thinking, but officers should have been notified of that fact.

In response to the killing, prison officials announced on February 23, 2005, that 3 of the 5 guards had been fired. Of the remaining 2, one was suspended for 5 days and the other was given a written reprimand. The guards' names were not released. Parker's mother, Melissa Rodriguez, said she thought the guards should face a criminal investigation. I'm glad they're fired and they're not going to be responsible for anyone else's life," she said. But that's not enough for me. I need to know why they didn't do enough to protect my child.

Michael A. Mastracci, the Parkers' attorney, said the family is also upset by the lack of information they've been provided about their son's death. Whatever they can be told, they want to know, Mastracci said Clearly, something can be told rather than just saying it's under investigation.

Following a review of its transportation policies, the DOC is considering installing security cameras on buses and vans and is obtaining estimates to modify the bus configuration to enhance security," said DOC Commissioner Frank C. Sizer Jr. He declined to discuss specifics. The DOC has also decided to ban the playing of commercial radio as a precaution" against distraction; require the guard in charge of the bus to check each prisoner's restraints as they board and to contact the central transportation office in Baltimore every 30 minutes during trips; and require interior lights to be turned on when the bus's headlights are on.
Johns was indicted for Parker's murder on March 7, 2005. Baltimore County Prosecutor Ann Brobst, who is handling the case, plans to seek the death penalty. She would not say how she knew the murder occurred in her county. (The bus traveled through 4 jurisdictions during its trip--only about 4 miles of which were through Baltimore County.) Michael Stark, spokesman for the Maryland-based Campaign to End the Death Penalty, noted that Baltimore County is one of the state's most aggressive death penalty jurisdictions. This is a ridiculous gesture on behalf of prosecutors who are trying to make themselves tough," he said.

Death On A Cellblock

But at least the guards were punished in Parker's death, unlike those involved in the death of Ifeanyi A. Iko, a 51-year-old Nigerian immigrant imprisoned at the Western Correctional Institution (WCI) in rural Cresaptown, Maryland.

Iko was killed by guards during a violent cell extraction on April 30, 2004. His death at the prison--where 96% of the staff is white and 76% of the prisoners are black--has raised troubling questions about the degree of force used and whether guards and prison officials deliberately engaged in a cover-up to hide their misdeeds. Officials released only sketchy details, but information gleaned from other sources, including letters written to the Baltimore Sun by prisoners who witnessed parts of the extraction that day, paint a disturbing picture.

The day before he died, Iko had been involved in a fight with his cellmate. Both were placed in isolation in separate cool down" cells. The next day, prison psychologist Janet Hendershot ordered Iko moved to a cell in the special observation" housing unit for a psychological evaluation. Iko, however, refused.

Jason R. Bell, a prisoner who was four cells down from Iko, reported watching the scene unfold through a crack in his door. As Hendershot and a high-ranking guard tried to convince Iko that he wouldn't be harmed, guards were gathering in a nearby foyer and donning riot gear--shields, body armor, helmets, gas masks and batons.

After warning Iko that he would be removed by force if he didn't cooperate, the lieutenant leading the assault emptied a large can of pepper spray into the feed slot, then another. I saw Iko's hands and arms come sticking out the slot," wrote Bell. He was screaming and coughing. They ordered him to turn around, but he never stuck his arms back out." After a third can of pepper spray, the guards rushed in, according to Bell. Though he couldn't see into the cell, Bell reported hearing the sounds of a violent struggle. I clearly heard Iko scream out, then abruptly go silent," Bell said. The smell of pepper spray overwhelmed the entire tier.

With his hands cuffed behind his back and shackles on his feet, Iko appeared unconscious as guards hustled him away, said Matthew Himmelright, another prisoner in the segregation unit. Iko's head was loosely swaying, and his chest was not visibly moving," he said. Nor was there any voluntary movement of Iko's eyes or shoulders and feet." At some point the guards had placed a mesh spit mask" over his head. Prisoner James Bonnet was one of several prisoners who said they saw guards take Iko by in a wheelchair on their way to the special observation unit. A blue-type mask was covering the face of the person," wrote Bonnet. The limp body had no movement even when bare feet were dragged on ... blacktop.

About two hours later, prison officials claim, guards discovered Iko lying motionless in the observation cell, tried to revive him, and called an ambulance at 4:37 p.m. However, a recording provided by the Allegany County 911 emergency center says different. Paramedics, who responded within 5 minutes of receiving the call, reported soon after leaving the prison that they had numerous indications" that Iko had been down for a little while" and that his body was already showing signs of rigor mortis.
Iko's death was a homicide caused by chemical irritation of the airways by pepper spray," and the placement of spit mask over his head, the autopsy report determined. The report failed to address the amount of pepper spray used, but three cans was far in excess of the single 2-second burst recommended by DOC training guidelines. The report also cited chest compression" as a factor and noted blunt force injuries to [Iko's] face, back of the neck, left anterior shoulder and upper and lower extremities." The report further said that guards left Iko face-down in the observation cell without removing his handcuffs or the spit mask.

Iko's family is understandably suspicious about his death, partly because prison officials failed to notify them. When the family did contact the prison two weeks later--after finally learning of his death from a Sun reporter--they were shocked to learn that his body was about to be released to the state anatomy board for scientific research. The family also noted that Iko had been vocal about abuses at the prison. He vowed that once he got out, that he would make sure that the prison was investigated," said his sister, Ada Iko. His brother, Dr. Benny Iko, said he had several letters from Iko in which he discussed being beaten and attempts to suffocate him.

A grand jury reviewed the case in August 2004 but declined to bring any indictments. The jurors examined written reports and a videotape of Iko's cell extraction and heard testimony from prison personnel. The jurors did not, however, hear directly from prisoner witnesses. Instead, they heard recorded testimony deposed by internal investigators. University of Maryland Law School Professor Doug Colbert, who questioned the thoroughness of the grand jury's two-day investigation, said that was insufficient. It's hard to believe an inmate witness would have felt free to say everything he heard or observed because there was no guarantee of protection," he said.

The grand jurors did make a number of recommendations, including a suggestion that prison officials improve video techniques used to record cell extractions; additional training on the risks of using certain forms of restraint; and better protocols to determine the condition of prisoners who are removed from their cells by force.

Gary C. Adler, the family's attorney, said the lack of indictments against prison guards was not unexpected," but he was surprised at how quickly the grand jury concluded its investigation. Just because a grand jury didn't hand down an indictment doesn't mean that everything that was done was not criminal or not right," he said.

On September 16, 2004, a state legislative panel met to discuss the conditions surrounding Iko's death. But prison officials remained obstinate. They refused to show lawmakers the videotape of Iko's extraction or to answer any specific questions about the incident. Mary Ann Saar, secretary of the DOC, cited a recently launched FBI investigation as the reason. State Senator Bryan E. Frosh, who had been told by the attorney generals office that prison officials could discuss the case, expressed frustration with Saars' decision. How is it going to sully the [FBI] investigation if you show us the videotape?" he asked. It is what it is; it's not going to change.

The family has since launched a $28 million federal lawsuit against prison officials for allegedly violating Iko's civil rights by using unreasonable and illegal" deadly force, said Adler.

Filed in the U.S. District Court in Greenbelt on November 22, 2004, the suit names Warden John P. Galley, Lt. James Shreve, and six guards as defendants. The suit places much of the blame for Iko's death on the atmosphere at the prison and contends administrators failed to appropriately discipline or prosecute brutal guards, thus encouraging them to believe that misconduct, including assault, battery and other acts of brutality were permissible and would not be punished.

The lawsuit further claims that Iko was already dead when taken from the prison, even though handled as if he were still alive. Had he been declared dead inside the prison, WCI officials would have been required to secure the scene and preserve evidence. None of the rules and regulations applicable to the circumstances were followed," says the suit.

Adler said the lawsuit isn't just about money. It's also about exposing abusive conditions at WCI. Ifeanyi believed the abuse in this prison ought to be addressed, and we're carrying out his wishes," Adler said. Anyone who knows anything about suing prisons and guards, and the difficulties involved, knows this suit is not being filed solely for money.

Conditions at WCI have been the focus of other lawsuits as well. On October 22, 2004, a federal jury awarded $45,001 to a state prisoner who said guards at the prison slammed his head against a wall and pummeled him while handcuffed in retaliation for filing grievances. The guards were not disciplined and the court later reversed the verdict.

Responding to the deaths of Parker and Iko--and the controversy surrounding the adequacy of the internal investigations--Senator Frosh introduced a new bill in February 2005. The legislation would require the state police to investigate deaths occurring in Maryland prisons and juvenile facilities unless they result from natural causes. It seems to me that if somebody is in the custody of the [Division of Correction], the state police should investigate so there can be no question of bias, or at least we can reduce the questions that can be raised about the completeness and fairness of the investigation," said Frosh.
In addition to the FBI probe, the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating claims of prisoner abuse at prison.

Other Deaths

The media spotlight has shone most brightly on the needless deaths of Parker and Iko, but many other Maryland prisoners have also succumbed to violent and suspicious deaths in recent years.
For prisoners at the Maryland House of Corrections Annex, where multiple stabbings have occurred in the last several years, life seems especially precarious. On January 7, 2002, prisoner Lorenzo Hazel, 35, was killed in an alleged attack by 3 other prisoners. Hazel was stabbed 74 times. On February 7, 2004, the prison was placed on lockdown after 4 stabbings in 4 days--one of them fatal. Damon Bowie, 33, was stabbed by another prisoner after an argument on February 3. He died at the hospital about 2 hours later. On July 7, 2004, guards at the Annex discovered an unidentified male prisoner who had been stabbed in the head and neck. The prisoner was flown to a trauma center in Baltimore, but it's unknown if he survived. Two fatal stabbings also occurred at the prison in December 2004 and January 2005. No further information was available regarding those deaths.
Women are not immune from untimely deaths in Maryland lockups, either. Deborah Epifanio, 34, died at the University of Maryland Medical Center on Sept 14, 2004, four days after being taken there by ambulance from the women's detention center in Baltimore. At the hospital, doctors diagnosed Epifanio with advanced cryptococcal meningitis. Prison Health Services, which provides contract medical care to the state's 24,000 prisoners, disciplined a physician's assistant and three nurses in connection with Epifanio's treatment. Hospital records also noted a head injury, which prison officials said Epifiano incurred in a fight, but no incident report was ever filed. Epifiano's relatives said they spotted prison personnel covering her bruises with makeup when they arrived at the hospital to view her body.

As of May 2004, 37 prisoners, including Iko, had reportedly died at WCI since it opened in 1996. DOC spokesman Mark Vernarelli said the number is not unusually high for a 1,650-man prison. But then again, he gets to go home at night. Vernarelli also said that Incidents of violence continue to be quite rare in our system." Perhaps he should tell that to the family of Robert George, 29, who was serving a 3-year sentence at WCI for larceny. George was stabbed in the chest as walked back to his cell after lunch. He died at the hospital about 3½ hours later.

Sources: The Baltimore Sun, Associated Press, Washington Post, Maryland Gazette

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