FBI now monitoring state probe of Hagerstown prison riot

November 20, 1991|By David Simon

Federal agents are monitoring the progress of a state investigation into the May 25 riot at the Maryland Correctional Institution in Hagerstown but are not currently conducting their own civil rights probe, officials confirmed yesterday.

At the same time, prison officials acknowledge that six months after the riot, they are still trying to discover which correctional officersfired shotguns at the Hagerstown inmates. Several shotgun rounds fired at inmates -- none of them resulting in serious wounds -- were not reported by the officers who discharged their weapons.

"In some instances, no one is owning up to the use of deadly force during the riot," said one corrections source.

Agents with the FBI office's civil rights investigation squad have requested and received investigative reports from state Division of Correction officials, according to Sgt. Gregory M. Shipley, corrections spokesman. The agents have also obtained DOC videotapes of an incident prior to the riot, when inmates were forcibly removed from cells after staging a brief protest.

But FBI officials say that they are satisfied so far that prison officials are aggressively pursuing their own investigation -- a probe that corrections sources say has been ham

pered by a lack of cooperation among some staff at the Hagerstown facility.

"In cases like this, where a state or local agency is conducting a proper investigation of an incident, we don't redo that investigation," said Andrew Manning, spokesman for the local office of the FBI. "We're monitoring the progress, but there would have to be some indication that it's being handled improperly before we'd begin a separate investigation."

APrison officials say that their probe by troopers assigned to the department's internal investigations unit, now six months old, is open-ended and continuing. Prisoners are being investigated for criminal misconduct during the May 25 incident; guards for the possible use of excessive force before and during the riot.

Corrections sources say that several shotgun blasts fired by correctional officers during the retaking of the facility were not reported to superiors by the officers who used the weapons. Eleven inmates were wounded and 14 correctional officers were injured in the 2 1/2 -hour standoff, which caused an estimated $1.5 million in damages to the prison.

In the days following the disturbance, Correction Commissioner Richard A. Lanham Sr. met with all the officers involved in suppressing the disturbance and urged them to come forward and truthfully report any use of force against inmates.

Some correctional officers -- including those officers involved in the more serious woundings of inmates -- did come forward, sources said. Others who fired their weapons have remained silent, however.

Concerned about the uncooperative attitude among prison staff as well as indications of other problems at the crowded, 60-year-old prison, corrections officials in July first encouraged the MCI warden to seek a transfer, then later dismissed him from his new position.

In addition, 11 other correctional officers -- most of them supervisors -- and three civilian staff members were transferred to other facilities at the end of July, according to Sergeant Shipley.

Sources said that the transfers were an attempt to counter a history of ill-treatment and lack of communication between staff and inmates at Hagerstown.

The corrections probe is also looking into allegations that the May riot was sparked by beatings of black inmates by white prison guards several hours before disturbance began. Those beatings allegedly occurred in a segregation unit, where as many as 25 inmates were forcibly removed from cells after refusing to return their meal trays to guards.

As is the policy with all such forcible removals, the incident was videotaped by correctional officers and those tapes were among the material requested and received by the FBI agents.

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