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Problems Continue In Maryland Prisons and Jails

A battle is raging in Maryland over how best to improve prison safety. Some advocate hiring more guards and medical personnel. Others want to expand prisoner rehabilitation services. Neither side seems to be considering the possibility that both are needed. Meanwhile, violence, neglect, and contraband are on the rise.

I'm going to kill you, prisoner Brandon T. Morris, 20, told guard Jeffery A. Wroten as he pointed the guards own gun at his head, according to court papers filed in Washington County on March 20, 2006. Please don't, please don't, Wroten begged just before Morris fatally shot him in the face.

Morris had been admitted to the Washington County Hospital in nearby Hagerstown after reportedly stabbing himself in the abdomen with a needle. Wroten, 44, was the lone employee guarding Morris when the January 26, 2006, incident occurred. After the shooting, Morris, who was serving an 8-year sentence at the Roxbury Correctional Institution for assault, robbery, and a weapons conviction, commandeered a taxi and led police on a 5-mile chase before crashing into a concrete barrier. Morris has since been transferred to the state's supermax prison in Baltimore. His trial is set to begin July 31, 2006. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

In the wake of the shooting, the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (DPSCS) decided to temporarily assign two guards for every hospitalized prisoner. Some argue the measures should have been implemented long ago and should be permanent. These are issues weve talked about time and time again, said Mike Keifer, a former guard at the Maryland Correctional Training Center (MCTC). It seems like we haven't been able to scream loud enough that we need more staff. State officials acknowledge that 670 of approximately 7,000 guard positions are currently vacant.

Responding to the incident, Governor Robert Ehrlich announced on March 15, 2006, that his supplemental budget proposal included $5.5 million to fund 160 new guard positions. But, he contends, Wroten's death had nothing to do with staffing levels. Rather, Ehrlich says, the key to safer prisons is expanding rehabilitation programs like Project Restart, a broad plan that includes mental health services, drug treatment, anger management classes, and educational programs. Programs like this one create a safer environment, Ehrlich said. They reduce recidivism and keep prisoners who want to better themselves occupied and out of trouble, he added. The Project is currently being tested at two prisons, but legislators have refused to expand the program until its effectiveness is proven.

While politicians debate funding issues, life in Maryland prisons remains precarious. At the Maryland House of Correction (MHC) and the MHC Annex in Jessup, for instance, violence is endemic. Two MHC guards were reportedly attacked by 3 prisoners and stabbed on March 29, 2006. One was treated at a local hospital and released; the other was hospitalized in fair condition. At the Annex--a separate walled and razor-wired enclosure inside the MHC compound--a 26-year-old prisoner was stabbed to death on May 26, 2005; another was fatally stabbed in January 2006. A month later, in February 2006, a series of 4 stabbings in 4 days led to a month-long lockdown. Hours after the lockdown was lifted, another prisoner was stabbed. In an earlier incident at the Annex, prisoner Lorenzo Hazel died after being attacked by 3 prisoners in January 2002. He was stabbed 85 times.

Other Maryland prisons are no safer. At the Maryland Correctional Institution (MCI) in Jessup, prisoner Robert Lee George III, a parole violator, was stabbed to death on December 7, 2004, his birthday. His attacker, William Anthony Goines, 22, was sentenced in March 2006 to an additional 15 years in prison. Another prisoner was stabbed several times at MCI-Hagerstown on March 21, 2006. The prisoner, who was serving a 3-year sentence, was admitted to the hospital in stable condition. A fatal stabbing also occurred at the state-run Baltimore City Detention Center on March 14, 2006. Anthony Conway, imprisoned on burglary and theft charges, died after being stabbed in the neck the day before.

In another episode of violence, 17 maximum security prisoners allegedly attacked guards at the North Branch Correctional Institution on January 6, 2006. The inmates threw batteries, chairs, and fans at the officers, said Major Priscilla Doggett, a spokeswoman for the DPSCS. They also punched and kicked them. The melee involved 5 guards and lasted about 10 minutes. One guard suffered a head injury and required surgery. Two others were treated for minor injuries. The incident provoked criticism from guards. We're insisting on an immediate investigation of correctional officer staffing levels compared to the inmate population, said Ron Smith, a union representative. They've cut so many jobs that the lives of every correctional officer in every facility in the state of Maryland is in jeopardy.

Ironically, there were plenty of guards when it came to the brutal deaths of Ifeanyi A. Iko and Raymond Smoot. Iko was killed by guards at the Western Correctional Institution during a cell extraction in April 2004. Smoot was stomped to death by a gang of guards at the Baltimore Central Booking and Intake Center in May 2005. Eight guards were fired and 3--Dameon Woods, 33, James Hatcher, 43, and Nathan Colbert, 42--were indicted on second degree murder charges in August 2005. Smoot's family filed a lawsuit on January 20, 2006, seeking $130 million in damages. [See PLNs, July and October 2005, for more on the deaths of Iko, Smoot, and Hazel.]

Officials are also battling an influx of contraband. It's an urgent matter, they say, because much of the prison systems violence stems from disputes over unpaid drug debts and struggles by gangs to control the black market trade in contraband. And there's plenty of it. In a 10-month review of contraband reports by the Baltimore Sun ending April 30, 2005, a surprising amount of drugs, weapons, and other contraband was noted. Examples include 109 packs of heroin found on one day at the Maryland Transition Center and 25 packs on another; 192 cell phones; 463 weapons; and mounds of tobacco (banned in Maryland prisons since 2001). Other finds include raw and crack cocaine, bottles of liquor, pornographic videos, tattoo guns, and 1 pet frog.

Like violence, prison guards and union representatives claim the contraband problem is due to insufficient staffing. But corrupt guards also play a role. In November 2005, for example, a guard was caught trying to deliver marijuana and ecstasy tablets to prisoners at MCI-Jessup. Another guard was charged that same month when marijuana was discovered in her car in the parking lot of the Jessup womens prison. Consequently, new rules now prohibit guards from bringing in ice chests, back packs, and duffel bags; more food than they can eat during their shift; beverages other than factory sealed bottled water; large amounts of cash; cell phones, electronic devices, and tobacco.

Short-staffing is also blamed for problems occurring in county jails, though apathy and indifference likely play an equal part. The death of Joseph McGee, 38, at the Howard County Jail is one example. While being transported to the jail on August 30, 2005, after being arrested on theft charges, the police cruiser transporting him collided with another vehicle. At the jail McGee was examined in the infirmary and given Tylenol, the prison cure all. The next day he was spitting up blood and complained of throbbing pains in his chest, said his sister, Annie McGee. She recalled her brother saying: "I ask for medical attention and they say: You're fine. We're short on staff." After she complained to jail officials McGee was placed in the infirmary and given more Tylenol. He was never taken to the hospital. On September 4 at 9:15 a.m. McGee complained that he couldn't move his legs. A nurse finally responded at 9:30, but by then he had stopped breathing. McGee was pronounced dead when he arrived at the hospital more than an hour later. The medical examiners report cited bronchopneumonia, an enlarged heart, and mucous-coated lungs weighing 2-3 times their normal weight.

Two other Howard County prisoners committed suicide in 2005. Three deaths is an alarming number for a jail with an average prisoner population of 200. But if the attitude of jail personnel is anything like that of County council member Charles C. Feaga (R), it's no wonder. Feaga said its hard to care for prisoners because many are drug addicts who bring the problems on themselves. We can't treat them like you do every individual who's brought into hospital. Apparently not even when they're involved in a serious automobile accident. James E. Crawford, attorney for the McGee family, said they plan to file a $5 million wrongful death suit against the county for inadequate medical care.

In other news, a guard at the Cecil County Detention Center was accused in November 2005 of selling cigarettes to prisoners for up to $50 a pack. The deputy, Scott D. Lewis, 30, is charged with malfeasance in office, delivering contraband into a correctional facility, and theft. Several weeks earlier, on October 19, 2005, a Carrol County jailer was charged with sexually assaulting a minor. Police say Correctional Officer 3rd Class Joe Torres Hernandez, 62, sexually abused the now 17-year-old girl between August 1999 and July 2002. Hernandez was the county's 2004 Correctional Officer of the Year.

And at the Jennifer Road Detention Center, a woman delivered a baby alone in her cell on December 1, 2005. I was screaming so much my whole body was trembling. Everyone could hear it, said Kari Parsons, 25, of her November 26, 2005, delivery. I was screaming and praying for God to help me. Parsons - made numerous requests for medical attention, but jail medical personnel--employees of the notoriously inept Correctional Medical Services--told her she wasn't going into labor. (CMS also recently took over prisoner medical care for the DPSCS. See PLN, February 2006 for more.) Unable to lie down, Parsons finally squatted near the toilet and braced herself against the wall. I felt down there and I felt my uterus open. I felt his head, she said. Holding the infants head, she jumped to the cells bare mattress and pushed. The baby, a boy, came out onto the green plastic cover. He slid right out of me, she said. Paramedics were called when jailers looked into her cell and saw the newborn. Parsons had been imprisoned for violating her misdemeanor theft probation. "It was ridiculous and totally inappropriate for the detention center to do what they did", said her attorney, Michael May. There's no word on whether jail officials think the incident was related to inadequate staffing, complications associated with treating drug addicts, or just plain old incompetence. But the smart money is on the latter.

Sources: Associated Press, The Daily Record, The Waynseboro Record,,,,,,,,,, and

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