Murders in Maryland Prisons Continue Despite Reforms
Reforms instituted by Maryland officials in an effort to curb violence in the state’s prison system have done little to stem the number of prisoner homicides, according to statistics released by the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.
Prison officials reported that while the number of serious assaults on prisoners dropped 47% from 2006 through 2012, and serious assaults on prison staff fell 65% during the same time period, the number of homicides in 2012 jumped to six – a three-year high – and additional murders occurred in 2013 and 2014.
Several of the killings occurred at Maryland’s highest-security prison, the North Branch Correctional Institution (NBCI) in Cumberland, including three murders within five months.
At approximately 5 a.m. on September 27, 2012, a prisoner once considered to be one of the most dangerous criminals in Howard County, surrounding Baltimore, was found dead in his cell at NBCI. Charles David Richardson IV, 28, was serving two life sentences without the possibility of parole for killing a female convenience store clerk and shooting a 19-year-old acquaintance to death inside his apartment.
Guards reported that they found Richardson’s cellmate outside the cell “in possession of clothing that appeared to be bloodstained,” according to a report by the Maryland State Police.
When guards entered the cell they discovered Richardson under a blanket with obvious head trauma. He was pronounced dead at the scene; the official cause of death was strangulation.
On November 27, 2012, serial rapist Michael Armstead, 53, was attacked by another NBCI prisoner while walking to the dining hall, according to police. He suffered a serious head injury and was taken to a Baltimore hospital, where he remained until he died on January 9, 2013.
Ricky Bailey, 51, was serving life without parole at NBCI for a 1991 home invasion, rape and robbery. As guards served breakfast on February 10, 2013, Bailey notified them that he “needed to be removed from the cell.” When guards returned to the cell they found Bailey unconscious with injuries to his head, neck and extremities. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
Other Maryland prisons have also experienced prisoner-on-prisoner homicides. On November 26, 2012, Malcolm Jerrod Pridget, 19, was taken to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center at the University of Maryland Hospital Center in Baltimore after he was found in his cell at the Western Correctional Institution, suffering from severe head injuries. Pridget, serving a 30-month sentence on drug and gun charges, died several days later.
Prisoner Deavel Johnson, 22, was killed at the Maryland Correctional Institute at Hagerstown on March 26, 2013; he was reportedly stabbed in the neck in a minimum-security unit as he sat on his bunk playing a video game.
Also, on April 12, 2013, Javaughn Young, 26, died from injuries he received at the medium-security Maryland Correctional Institution in Jessup. Police officials said Young, who was serving time for assault and false imprisonment, had been severely beaten.
Then-Corrections Secretary Gary D. Maynard insisted that the murders did not detract from the overall safety of the state’s prison system because they were not connected to “any patterns or common circumstances that would indicate any issues related to the operational safety and security of our institutions.”
Maynard said the victims’ cellmates were usually identified as suspects in the homicides, and that such incidents are difficult to prevent despite screening by mental health professionals to determine whether cellmates will be compatible.
“Generally, where the cellmate is involved, there aren’t any gang-related or pre-meditated ‘hit’-like circumstances involved,” he wrote in an e-mail to the Baltimore Sun. “They are usually spontaneous, when one cellmate becomes angry enough to make a bad decision.”
Maynard pointed to efforts the department had taken to reduce prison violence since he assumed office in 2007. As an example, he cited the closing of the maximum-security Maryland House of Corrections in Jessup. He also initiated a closer working relationship between law enforcement agencies to share intelligence about gangs – an effort that paid off by keeping rival prisoners separated, he said.
Corrections department statistics showed a drop in serious assaults on prisoners from 271 to 144 from 2007 to 2012, and a decline in serious assaults on prison staff from 20 to 7 over the same period. That trend continued into 2013, according to prison officials.
However, advocacy groups complained the reforms were not enough. David Rocah, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said prisoners complained to him numerous times that prison authorities routinely deny requests to separate cellmates who don’t get along.
Gabriel Eber, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s National Prison Project, added it is critical that prison officials take responsibility for violence that occurs behind bars, learn from previous mistakes and institute changes.
“We always want to see a system that takes a step back and takes a broader view and says as a system, ‘What could we have done to have prevented this from happening?’” he stated.
Talk of reforms, however, does little to comfort the family members of prisoners who have been murdered.
“It’s a house of horrors,” said a close relative of Ricky Bailey, describing the Maryland prison system. She told the Baltimore Sun that she believes Bailey was killed by gang members, and spoke on the condition of anonymity due to fear of retaliation.
Family members also decried the refusal of state officials to provide adequate answers about the circumstances surrounding the deaths of their loved ones.
“They’re telling me that [he] was attacked by another inmate. Prove it to me,” said Malcolm Pridget’s mother, Phyllis Scott. “I don’t think we’re ever going to get the truth,” added his sister.
In February 2014, prisoner Corgiss Ross, 45, was found guilty of murdering Pridget at the Western Correctional Institution, and sentenced to life in prison.
Andre Washington, 21, pleaded guilty on December 1, 2014 to killing Deavel Johnson; as part of a plea bargain to a charge of second-degree murder, he will receive a sentence of up to 30 years. Accessory charges against another prisoner, James Valentine, were dropped. According to the Associated Press, Johnson’s grandfather said “the prison system had failed his grandson.”
A spike in assaults on prison guards at NBCI prompted the firing of warden Bobby Shearin on February 17, 2014. Shearin had ordered the facility locked down for weeks following a series of attacks in the summer of 2013 that left more than a dozen guards injured, including one who was stabbed in the head and neck.
Shearin said he had been gradually easing lockdown restrictions in a “modified operation,” but apparently not quickly enough for state officials. Corrections spokesman Mark Vernarelli said Shearin was terminated “in order to move more quickly to restoring the prison to normal operations.”
The head of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Maryland Council 3, the union that represents prison workers, expressed its disapproval of Shearin’s firing.
“Officers that work in that facility are very disappointed in the department’s decision to remove the warden,” said Council 3 president Patrick Moran. “He works very well with the frontline staff in the very dangerous job they do every day.”
Shearin said that after four years on the job, he was disappointed that he “couldn’t finish what I started.” He said the state had used him as a scapegoat for larger problems at NBCI, and had blamed him for shortcomings in leadership, management and communication at the facility, which he denied.
Vernarelli did not provide specific details about Shearin’s firing. State corrections officials assigned Frank Bishop, Jr., a former warden at the Western Correctional Institution, to replace Shearin. Bishop was later replaced by Richard Miller, who currently serves as NBCI’s acting warden.
Meanwhile, Corrections Secretary Gary Maynard announced his resignation in December 2013; he was succeeded by Gregg Hershberger, who was subsequently replaced by Stephen T. Moyer in January 2015.
Despite the change in leadership, Maryland prisons continue to experience violence and homicides. On September 12, 2014, John Wyatt, 69, serving a 20-year sentence, was found dead in his cell at the Western Correctional Institution. His death was initially attributed to natural causes, but an investigation and autopsy determined he had been murdered. The Maryland State Police is investigating.
Sources: Baltimore Sun,www.baltimore.cbslocal.com, Associated Press, www.times-news.com, www.correctionsone.com
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