Prisoner’s Death, Abusive and Incompetent Guards Give Black Eye to Maryland Prisons & Jails
by Gary Hunter
On June 27, 2008, Ronnie L. White, 19, was arrested for the death of Maryland State Police Cpl. Richard S. Findley after hitting him with a truck. Police reports claim that White “intentionally accelerated toward Corporal Findley and ran him over.”
The following day White was taken to court and charged with first-degree murder. He was then placed in a solitary confinement cell at the Prince George’s County jail, which would prove to be a death sentence. White was found dead in his cell on June 29; an autopsy ruled his death a homicide.
The circumstances surrounding White’s murder were unclear, but guards at the jail were implicated. NAACP chapter president June White Dillard complained that the guards involved in White’s death were not being disciplined. “There are nine individuals identified and all are still employed and still on duty. We feel it is imperative that they be placed on administrative leave until a complete and thorough investigation has been completed into the homicide of Ronnie White.”
Clothilda Harvey, attorney for the guards’ union, said the autopsy ruling was premature and that White’s death could eventually be declared a suicide because a sheet was found in the vicinity of White’s cell.
However, the attorney representing White’s family, Bobby Henry, disagreed. “The medical examiner’s office has already given the cause of death, and that is not going to change ... [White’s] neck was broken, and he was strangled to death. There’s nothing that can change that, nothing....”
At least two medical examiners concurred. Vincent DiMaio, retired chief medical examiner of San Antonio, Texas and Dimitri L. Contostavlos, retired medical examiner for Delaware County, Pennsylvania, noted that petechiae found on White’s body – splotch marks left by burst blood vessels in the face and eyes – seldom occur in suicide by hanging and were indicative of strangulation.
Further complicating the investigation into White’s death was the discovery that his solitary confinement cell was accessible to many more people than first believed, because two doors allowed anonymous entry into his cell block.
Dillard insisted that the FBI should be leading the investigation. “There is no doubt that some actions of correctional officers or others are the direct cause of [White’s] death, and that has to be immediately investigated and acted upon,” she said.
Two guards, Anthony McIntosh and Ramon Davis, were eventually placed on leave after jail authorities determined they were “the focus of the investigation,” according to county spokesman John Erzen. They have not been charged, and the investigation is ongoing.
Brutality is not uncommon in Maryland lockups. In April 2008, 25 guards were fired from two state correctional facilities after evidence of brutality was discovered. Seventeen guards were fired from the Roxbury Correctional Institution near Hagerstown and eight were fired at the North Branch Correctional Institution near Cumberland. [See: PLN, July 2008, p.38]
“These mass firings, this conduct by the state, is not justified,” said Joe Lawrence, a spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the union that represents the guards. He did not say whether the guards’ brutality was justified.
In August 2008, Maryland State Police investigators presented prosecutors with a report of the guards’ misdeeds that was over 9 inches thick. Regardless, prosecutors Charles P. Strong of Washington County and Michael O. Twigg of Allegany County decided to proceed with caution. “I don’t have a timeline for these matters but certainly, in the best interests of all concerned, it would be appropriate to expedite this matter,” said Strong.
Guards at the Roxbury prison allegedly beat seven members of the Dead Man Inc. gang on March 6, 2008, breaking one prisoner’s jaw. The remaining prisoners were sent to the North Branch facility, where they were again assaulted by guards.
On March 8 and 9, 2008, another prisoner was beaten by a guard during a security check. Because that prisoner had been accused of attacking the guard, he was assaulted by staff on the following shift, too, and had to be hospitalized.
Maryland Public Safety and Correctional Services Secretary Gary D. Maynard was urged by state lawmakers to reinstate the fired guards, but declined to do so until the investigation was complete. He said the grounds for their dismissal were “very compelling.” Two of the Roxbury guards who had been fired were later reinstated after prison officials said they had evidence that cleared them of wrongdoing.
In February 2009, nine of the former Roxbury guards were each charged with one count of second-degree assault, and six former North Branch guards were charged with second-degree assault and conspiracy. All were released without bail following a hearing on March 5. Trials are scheduled for June 2009; some of the prison guards are reportedly cooperating with the DA’s office. Eight fired guards will not face charges due to insufficient evidence.
Beyond brutality by prison staff, a series of escapes has also proved problematic for corrections officials. After two prisoners escaped from custody at Maryland’s Laurel Regional Hospital, prison administrators imposed a policy barring non-emergency hospital treatment for state prisoners.
On April 30, 2008, Kelvin D. Poke, a prisoner at the Jessup Correctional Institution, was taken to the Laurel Hospital after he complained of chest pains. While he was being treated he managed to elude the single prison guard who was watching him, overpowered two armed guards, and carjacked a vehicle outside the hospital. After evading police for seven hours he was finally killed in a shootout at Prince George’s County cemetery.
Poke’s unsuccessful escape occurred mere months after prisoner Kamera Mohamed’s November 2007 getaway from the same hospital. Mohamed grabbed a gun from a state trooper while making his escape.
There have been calls to construct a wing at Laurel Hospital solely for the treatment of prisoners. Other hospitals have implemented their own protocols. Howard County General Hospital allows only one prisoner per floor, requires prisoners to be handcuffed and shackled, allows no more than three prisoners in the hospital at a time, does not allow prisoners access to phones or visitors, and requires a guard to be within arm’s length of the prisoner at all times.
The escape of prisoner Marcus Anderson on July 22, 2008, although not as dramatic, was still a cause for concern for prison officials. Deborah Barron, a 19-year veteran of the corrections department, picked up the 6’3” 220-pound Anderson in the lobby of a pre-release unit in Jessup. Barron then transported him to the Brockbridge Correctional Facility, where another transport was supposed to take him to trial. But when she arrived at Brockbridge she learned Anderson’s transport had already left. Barron reported the problem to a supervisor, who failed to advise her on how to proceed.
All the supervisor said was “Oh Lord. OK,” and hung up, Barron said.
On her own initiative Barron placed Anderson in the front seat of the van, unhandcuffed, and proceeded to drive him to the courthouse. When the van stopped at a red light Anderson “leaped out” and ran away. Because Barron didn’t have a radio or cell phone, she had no choice but to continue to the courthouse and report the escape.
“Did you give him bus tokens, too?” Judge Charles G. Bernstein asked her sarcastically.
In her defense, Barron stated, “...they didn’t tell me to bring him back. I assumed they wanted me to take him downtown.” She was not disciplined.
The misconduct by and general ineptness of Maryland’s prison and jail guards prompted an investigation by the Washington Post. The Post’s investigators found that over a dozen guards at the Prince George’s County jail had been arrested on a variety of charges. No less than six jail guards were suspended in 2008 alone.
Former guard Reynardo Humphrey was incarcerated in late July after being convicted of armed robbery. In 2001, ex-guard Kenneth Paul St. Clair was convicted of second-degree child abuse. He had fractured the ribs and skull of an 11-month-old baby; the child also suffered a bite mark to his shoulder and bruises to his chest, face and forehead.
Another jail guard was charged in May 2008 with sexually assaulting his wife. The charges were later dropped after his wife refused to cooperate. Nine of the guards who had been arrested were still employed at the jail as of December 2007, one with multiple convictions for brutality against women.
In June 2008, the corrections director for Prince George’s County, Alfred J. McMurray, Sr., was fired after four handguns went missing from the jail’s armory. The guns have not been found. Three months earlier, three guards were suspended during an investigation into whether they had conspired to smuggle cell phones to prisoners. One of those guards was reportedly a member of the Bloods gang.
When asked about the Post’s findings, jail officials refused to comment on any of the guards in question, citing concerns about the ongoing investigation into the murder of Ronnie White. “Due to the critical nature of the ongoing investigation, it is not in the public’s best interest to discuss those issues until the investigation is concluded,” said Public Safety Director Vernon Herron.
In December 2008, a Prince George’s County grand jury investigating White’s death completed its term without issuing an indictment. Maryland State Attorney Glenn F. Ivey said the case was still ongoing, and a new grand jury would hear evidence. Investigations by the FBI and Maryland State Police remain pending.
Although ten months have passed since Ronnie White’s death in a segregation cell, questions remain. Jail officials, however, are apparently disinclined to provide answers.
Sources: Associated Press, Baltimore Sun, Washington Post, www.news8.net
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