Lag in obtaining police report stalls probe of Hagerstown prison conflict

October 27, 1991|By Thom Loverro | Thom Loverro,Western Maryland Bureau of The Sun

HAGERSTOWN -- Five months after inmates rioted at the Maryland Correctional Institution in Hagerstown, the Washington County state's attorney complains that his probe is stalled by the state's failure to provide him with reports on the disturbance.

Kenneth Long, the prosecutor, said he has not yet received the state police reports on the May 25 riot, in which 44 inmates and 14 correctional officers were injured.

"I can't do anything until I get the state police reports," Mr. Long said.

He said he expected by now to have those reports, which would come from the state police investigative unit assigned to the state Division of Correction. "It happened in May," he said. "What would you expect? . . . I don't know what the problem is; maybe they don't have enough secretaries to type the reports."

Shortly after the riot, which caused an estimated $1 million damage to the facility, Commissioner of Correction Richard A. Lanham Sr. said that the investigation would probably be completed "in several weeks."

However, the department has been burdened by a heavy workload and other incidents, such as the July disturbance at the Maryland Penitentiary in Baltimore, said Sgt. Gregory M. Shipley, a Division of Correction spokesman.

"We have had a very busy summer, and our intention is to do a very thorough job," Sergeant Shipley said.

"It [the Hagerstown probe] is a very large investigation involving hundreds of inmates. We have a limited number of investigators that have to deal not only with MCI at Hagerstown, but our other 19 facilities in the state." He said investigators have presented some evidence to Mr. Long "and we will be continuing to send evidence to him. The investigation is continuing."

Sergeant Shipley would not say when he expected the department to complete its probe.

Several weeks after the disturbance, in a series of letters obtained by The Sun, inmates alleged that the uprising was caused by the beating of 20 to 30 black inmates by white prison guards several hours earlier.

But Mr. Lanham said he was confident that videotapes taken of (( the "forcible extraction" of up to 25 inmates from their cells at MCI-H will prove that correctional officers did not use excessive force.

Mr. Long is not the only one waiting for the state's evidence. So is the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prisons Project in Washington. The group has represented the inmates on issues such as overcrowding and prison conditions.

MCI-H, with a capacity of 1,088, houses about 1,600 inmates. In many cases, two prisoners share the same cell.

Adding to those problems are racial tensions and a cultural clash between the mostly black, city-raised prisoners and their overwhelmingly white, rural guards.

David Fahti of the ACLU said the Division of Correction has rejected his office's requests for information about the riot. In fact, the state is seeking a court order to block the ACLU from getting the evidence, including videotapes that Mr. Lanham said would show that officers did not beat inmates.

"We are entitled to see those tapes whether or not they make the state's case, but if they vindicated the department's position, they should have no problem disclosing them," Mr. Fahti said. "I'm mystified by it."

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