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Problems Mount In Maryland Prisons

by Michael Rigby

Even as the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (DPSCS) reels amid mounting criticism over pervasive violence, inadequate medical care, overcrowding, understaffing, and other systemic deficiencies, new tremors continue to rattle the division. Eight guards accused of beating a prisoner to death have been fired, and an investigator inexplicably reassigned. Another guard has been charged with plotting to kill a prisoner. At the same time, prison workers are complaining of unsafe work conditions, and a warden has resigned in protest.

On May 14, 2005, Raymond Smoot, 52, died after he was beaten and stomped ... by a number of officers" at the Baltimore Central Booking and Intake Center, said Warren Brown, the family's attorney. Smoot died the next day at a local hospital. The state medical examiner ruled his death a homicide.

It'll be clear that this institution is operating with an absence of rules and regulations on how to deal with these types of procedures," Brown said. The beatingwhich reportedly involved 25 to 30 guardsapparently happened when Smoot refused to enter his cell.

Smoot's niece, Delvonna Smoot, said his face was horribly deformed from the beating. My uncle's face was like, shifted," she said. The doctors said they've never seen another human being beat somebody as bad as they beat my uncle, never." Smoot had been arrested 10 days earlier for felony theft and was being held on $1,000 bail.

The booking center has been condemned by attorneys and prisoner advocates for unsanitary and unsafe conditions. Designed to process up to 45,000 people a year, the center processed more than 100,000 in 2004. In April 2005, overcrowding and processing delays led a judge to order the release of prisoners held more than 24 hours. Since 2002, 27 prisoners have died at the center, said State Senator Verna Jones, who has called for an investigation. On May 16, six of the guards involved in Smoot's death were placed on administrative leave.

Two guards who witnessed the incident told investigators that Smoot was beaten, stomped, and kicked in retaliation for assaulting a guard. Smoot family attorney A. Dwight Pettit says, however, that prisoner witnesses have said Smoot was merely seeking permission to make up missed recreation time and that he never struck a guard.

After the beating, at least one guard reportedly boasted about it. In a statement to investigators, a guard reported that a coworker had bragged, Look at that [expletive]. That's what happens when you [expletive] with officers." Pettit said he has heard similar accounts. It corroborates the fact that this is a murder," he said. It has all the aspects of a murderintent, malice, and forethought.

On June 10, 2005, the DPSCS announced that eight guards, including a lieutenant, had been fired. Their names were not released. As of that time no charges had been filed, though a criminal investigation was continuing. The FBI has also launched a civil rights investigation.

Soon after the firings, a lead internal affairs investigator who had been working the case was reassigned to a guard position. On June 13, 2005, shortly after he turned over the department's findings to prosecutors, the investigator was notified in a letter that he had been reassigned, said Herbert Berry Jr., a labor representative for the Maryland Correctional Law Enforcement Union. The investigator had worked for the internal affairs unit for four years.

The same week, a second internal affairs investigator was also reassigned to a guard position. That investigator had been involved in the politically motivated 2004 investigation of state elections chief Linda H. Lamone. (Seeking to have Lamone ousted, others on the election board assigned a prison investigator to dig up information on her.)
The unidentified investigators were given no reason for their transfer, casting suspicion on the motives behind their reassignments. I don't have any idea what's going on here," said democratic State Senator Brian E. Frosh, who chairs the Judicial Proceedings committee. The [investigators' reassignments] are very unusual and very significant.

Berry also expressed suspicion and said the investigators have voiced concerns that their reassignment as guards in prisons where they previously conducted investigations could jeopardize their safety.
On August 19, 2005, three of the guards involved in Smoot's deathDameon Woods, 33, Nathan Colbert, 42, and James Hatcher, 43-surrendered to authorities after they were indicted on charges of second degree murder and assault. Bond was set at $100,000 for all three.

Disturbingly, the killing of prisoners by guards isn't limited to the Booking Center. Three days before Smoot was murdered, a prisoner at the adjacent Baltimore City Detention Center, which is also operated by the DPSCS, was attacked and stabbed by other prisoners who were apparently working with a guard. On May 11, 2005, guard Sherman Lawrence ordered prisoner Ronald Scott, 26, into a recreation area filled with other prisoners. Minutes later, Lawrence ordered everyone out of the area except for Scott and three others. Two of the prisoners then allegedly threw a sheet over Scott's head and stabbed him in the head and body. At least one prisoner, Donte Smith, 24, has been charged with attempted murder.
After the attack Lawrence returned Scott to his cell where he remained, bleeding and in pain, until he was discovered by a jail captain. He was transported by ambulance to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center where he was treated for a collapsed lung and puncture wounds to his head, back, and side.

Lawrence, 21, was fired after the incident but soon returned to the jailas a prisoner. On July 9, 2005, Lawrence was charged with conspiring to commit first-degree murder and other related charges. He was denied bail. Court records showed that he was also charged on May 22, 2005, with smuggling alcohol into an unspecified Baltimore prison.

Prison officials say the incidents involving Smoot and Scott are isolated and do not reflect the generally decent behavior of Maryland's prison guards. Others, however, believe the incidents are indicative of wider problems within the prison system. We're trying to find out what's going on, what's wrong," said State Senator Verna L. Jones, a democrat. The secretary [of the DPSCS, Mary Ann Saar] and her subordinates, they say everything is going fine, and. I'm just not convinced. They keep sloughing it off and saying it's individuals. When you have so many situations coming up, it's the system.

While DPSCS officials are obviously not concerned about the safety of prisoners, many guardsand even some wardensargue that the department is not overly concerned with their safety, either. They contend that staff cutbacks have created an unsafe work environment and that prison officials have done little to address the problem.

As one example, critics point to the alleged attempted sexual assault of a female prison guard at the Roxbury Correctional Institution in Hagerstown. The lone guard was locking classrooms in the education building on July 7, 2005, when a prisoner on the trash crew reportedly grabbed her from behind, threw her to the ground, and climbed on top of her.

The area is normally staffed by two guards, according to representatives with the Maryland Classified Employees Association, but the other guard had been reassigned to work in another area of the prison. As a result, no one was around to hear the commotion or to intervene, said MCEA chapter president John R. Reamy.

The 31-year-old prisoner, who was serving time for the 1990 murder of a 13-year-old girl, was transferred to the supermax prison in Baltimore.
Just before the alleged attack at Roxbury, the warden at another Hagerstown prison, the Maryland Correctional Institution, resigned in protest accusing the DPSCS of dictatorial leadership" and staff cuts that demonstrate a disregard for public safety.

In a June 11, 2005, interview, Joseph Sacchet, a 30-year veteran employee of the prison system, complained of micro-management, verbal abuse, and job cuts under Corrections Commissioner Frank C. Sizer's administration. It's clear to me they had an agenda," Sacchet said, referring to Sizer and Assistant Commissioner Michelle Elzie. There's no doubt in my mind, they were going to force me out." Sacchet's resignation was effective June 30.

Union representatives say the warden's resignation confirms the danger created by staff cuts. Here's a warden saying what we've been saying all along," said Ron Bailey, executive director of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees Council 92. The state is endangering our officers.

In the interview, Sacchet said he was prepared to lose 30 to 35 positions under a reorganization plan, but that the department had cut 82 jobs since September 2004. This system is going to crumble. Somebody's going to get hurt," he said.

Plenty of prisoners already have. The deaths of Phillip E. Parker Jr. and Ifeanyl A. Iko are just two examples. On February 2, 2005, Parker, 20, was choked to death on a prison bus in plain sight of five guards. The murder wasn't discovered until the bus arrived at the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center in Baltimore. Iko, 51, was killed by guards at the Western Correctional Institution during a violent cell extraction on April 30, 2004 after he refused to attend a psychiatric appointment. [For more on the deaths of Parker, Iko, and Smoot, see PLN, July, 2005, for details.]

Sources: Baltimore Sun, Associated Press, WJZ 13: Baltimore News

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