Inmate disturbance played down by city, played up by union

February 21, 1991|By Rafael Alvarez

Angry inmates assaulted correctional officers, broke windows and set a fire at the Baltimore City Jail early yesterday after refusing to leave a holding pen for other quarters at the jail.

A Schmoke administration spokeswoman for the jail and a vice president of a union representing correctional officers gave vastly different accounts of the incident, which began about 6:30 a.m. and resulted in minor injuries.

City Hall said the disturbance involved three inmates and was not serious enough to disrupt the routine at the jail; the union official said that 100 inmates were involved and that it was a "major disturbance."

Tracy Brown, the only city employee permitted by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke to speak publicly about the City Jail, said guards were forced to subdue the three inmates after they knocked out windows with their fists, set fire to a correctional officer's jacket that lay on a table and refused to leave the holding pen. She said guards in riot gear were called to the area but not needed.

Ms. Brown said 44 inmates had been kept longer than usual at the holding pen in the jail's reception and diagnostic area because of the Monday holiday, which meant courts were closed and resulted in extra processing work Tuesday. Inmates were apparently upset about being held for so long in the area.

But Officer Robert T. James, a vice president of Local 44 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, called the incident a "major disturbance" and added that "[about] eight officers were battling 100 inmates." He said some officers used riot sticks to restore order.

Ms. Brown said correctional officers, in written reports, counted only 44 inmates in the holding area. Neither Ms. Brown nor Officer James witnessed the disturbance at the East Eager Street jail.

The problem was settled, Ms. Brown said, after correctional officers forced their way through the holding area to reach the half-dozen or so inmates who had started the trouble. There was no jailwide lockdown after the disturbance, she said.

Officer James said the disturbance resulted from a chronic shortage of correctional officers.

However, Ms. Brown said the holding pen area was more than fully staffed at the time because the disturbance took place during a shift change for the guards.

Asked about the discrepancy between her version of the events and Officer James', Ms. Brown said: "It's not as if this is one guard's story vs. another. This [her version] is the official jail story."

The jail was 102 inmates under a court-ordered capacity of 2,713, Ms. Brown said.

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