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No Safety or Security for Maryland Prisoners
The Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (DPSCS) initially terminated the employment of eight guards on April 4, 2008. Another nine were fired a week later. All had been employed at the Roxbury Correctional Institution (RCI), a medium-security 1,750-bed facility. The firings followed accusations that they used excessive force against a group of prisoners in the aftermath of a prison disturbance in early March.
Guards at the nearby North Branch Correctional Institution were also accused of assaulting prisoners after they were transferred from RCI. Eight North Branch guards were placed on administrative leave on March 27, 2008 pending the out-come of an investigation; they were subsequently fired in April.
DPSCS Secretary Gary D. Maynard said not all of the 25 guards were accused of beating prisoners; some were thought to have lied to investigators, others were accused of covering up for co-workers and some were suspected of fail-ing to intervene.
According to an unnamed source, tensions were high at RCI on March 6 after a member of the prison gang Dead Man Inc. struggled with a guard who was escorting him across the compound.
When additional guards rushed to subdue the prisoner, other gang members joined in and a brief fight ensued. After-ward, several of the prisoners were taken to a different part of the facility and assaulted by guards, according to the source. The prisoners were later transferred to North Branch where they reportedly suffered more beatings.
An unidentified prisoner who sent a letter to the Baltimore Sun corroborated many of these details. He wrote that he and six other prisoners were severely beaten at RCI. He described being handcuffed and attacked by four guards at a time, then taken to another area of the prison where he was “punched, kicked, shoved, choked, and even spit on” by other guards. He said the beat-ings continued when the next shift arrived.
After that, the prisoner wrote, he and five others were transferred to North Branch where they were subjected to beat-ings that were “ten times worse” than those they received at RCI.
About two days after the initial melée at RCI, another prisoner was found with severe injuries resulting from a sepa-rate beating incident. That prisoner had allegedly been involved in a planned assault on a guard. Investigators believe the assault was ordered by gang members in retaliation for the beatings on March 6.
But prosecuting prison guards who have brutalized prisoners isn’t easy.
In April 2008, five guards were acquitted of assaulting prisoner Bradford Mathews on July 26, 2006 at the now-closed Maryland House of Correction, where guard David McGuinn had been murdered the day before. McGuinn was allegedly stabbed to death by two prisoners who escaped from their maximum security cells. [See: PLN, Feb. 2007, p.1; Sept. 2007, p.26].
Guards Naron Dyer Sr., 28, and Antoine Fordham, 22; Sgts. Berkeley Ghee, 32, and Keith Randolph, 35; and Capt. Manuel Williams, 36, had been accused of using excessive force on Matthews to “teach him a lesson and show him who’s boss” when he refused to obey orders. The guards did not even work at the House of Correction; they worked at the Jes-sup Correctional Institution and were transporting prisoners in the segregation unit to another prison. Yet they left their mark on Mathews, who suffered hearing loss and two black eyes.
Corruption and Contraband
At a March 2008 court hearing for Lamar Harris, one of two prisoners accused of murdering guard David McGuinn on July 25, 2006, defense lawyer Mary Jo Livingston noted that 21 guards at the Maryland House of Correction had been implicated in contraband smuggling and other corrupt activities uncovered by officials investigating McGuinn’s death.
The guards’ integrity is important to the state’s case against the prisoners accused of killing McGuinn, because the guards controlled the crime scene before state police arrived.
The state police “did not find any physical evidence at the scene that directly links Mr. Harris to the crime. The only physical evidence was removed from the scene of the crime” by prison guards, said Livingston.
Livingston further asserted that the state had allowed the facility to lapse into “anarchy.” This created an environment where corruption flourished and no one was safe, which directly contributed to McGuinn’s death. “It fueled the violence and is relevant because that is the environment in which Mr. Harris had to survive,” she said.
An unidentified witness even told state investigators that corrupt guards involved in contraband smuggling had actually “ordered the hit” on McGuinn, according to legal documents filed in the case.
Questions also surround the alleged murder weapon. The shank used to kill McGuinn was initially found in a rear cat-walk near where he was killed. However, a crime scene investigator knocked it off the rail and it went missing for two days. It turned up on prisoner Bradford Mathews during a strip search.
According to internal reports, police and prison investigators said it appeared the shank had been planted on Mathews to cover up for a beating by guards the afternoon of McGuinn’s death.
In correspondence with the Baltimore Sun, Rick Binetti, a spokesman for the prison system, played down allegations of conspiracy and organized corruption by Maryland prison guards. “The contraband coming in from staff is generally just bad decision making, not some organized activity,” Binetti stated in an e-mail.
DPSCS secretary Gary Maynard has taken the same position, refusing to see the situation for what it is. Of the 8,000 guards watching over Maryland’s 23,000 prisoners, Maynard said “99.9 percent of them are hard-working and dedicated, and follow policy and state law.”
Yet according to Binetti, last year167 guards and other prison workers were reprimanded or suspended for contra-band-related violations.
That’s more than 20 times Maynard’s rosy estimate, and that figure doesn’t even include those accused of neglecting their duties – including often fatal medical neglect, having improper sexual relations with prisoners, beating prisoners and, in some cases, even killing them. PLN has repeatedly covered these and other abuses in Maryland’s prison system [see: PLN, Aug. 2005, p.1; Oct. 2005, p.6; Aug. 2006, p.20; Feb. 2007, p.1; and Sept. 2007, p.26].
An Eye For An Eye
In another recent incident, prisoner Brandon T. Morris was convicted of fatally shooting RCI guard Jeffery Wroten in the head with Wroten’s own gun during a January 2006 escape attempt from a hospital. Surprisingly, on January 28, 2008, Judge Joseph P. Manck sentenced Morris to life in prison without parole rather than imposing the death penalty. Judge Manck cited the horrific abuse that Morris endured during his childhood as the reason for sparing his life.
Manck’s decision angered many Maryland guards. “Emotions are running high due to the murder of Officer Wroten and the fact that Brandon got a life sentence and not the death penalty,” said William W. Sondervan, who ran Maryland’s prisons from 1999 to 2003 and is now director of the criminal justice, forensic investigations and legal studies department at the Uni-versity of Maryland University College. “Memories run long,” he added.
No doubt more Maryland guards (who, like all prison guards, wield absolute control over the prisoners in their custody) will channel their anger to justify even more beatings and violence directed at prisoners. Ironically, the reality is that in many cases guards are as much to blame for prison violence as the prisoners themselves.
Death on Wheels
Prisoners are not only not safe in Maryland’s prisons, they’re even at risk when being transported from one facility to another. On February 2, 2005, Phillip E. Parker, 20, was strangled to death by fellow prisoner Kevin G. Johns, Jr., 25, while on a transport bus enroute to the state’s Supermax facility in Baltimore. [See: PLN, Oct. 2005, p.6]. Johns already had two murder convictions on his record – including the killing of another prisoner the year before – plus a long history of mental illness. Parker’s death was not noticed by the five prison guards on the bus until after they arrived at their destination.
On June 9, 2008, Johns was found guilty but not criminally responsible for Parker’s murder. Like Morris he also was spared the death penalty. The court noted that the Maryland prison system was partly to blame, in that it had “ample warnings” about Johns’ mental illness but had failed to provide adequate treatment. Just before Parker was killed, a prison psychologist, against the advice of a psychiatrist, had discontinued Johns’ psychotropic medications because he thought Johns was faking his condition. “If the employees involved had done their jobs properly, Mr. Parker might be alive today,” observed Harford County Judge Emery Plitt.
At the time of his preventable murder, Parker was serving a 3 1/2 year sentence for committing a robbery using a pellet gun.
Heads in the Sand
Predictably, union officials have rallied around the dozens of prison guards who have been terminated or are under investigation for the beatings at RCI and North Branch. “We believe this investigation is being pursued in a reckless fash-ion, and as a result, morale has suffered,” stated Joe Lawrence, a spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). There was no mention of how the beaten prisoners had suffered, of course. AFSCME officials announced on April 11, 2008 that two of the fired RCI guards had since been reinstated.
It’s time for Maryland officials to pull their heads from the sand and realistically assess issues affecting the security of both Maryland prisoners and prison staff. Only then will some semblance of sanity – and safety – return to the state’s prisons.
Sources: Baltimore Sun, Associated Press, New York Times, www.correctionsone.com
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