Escape raises security issues at 'Supermax' Convicted murderer remains free after daylight breakout

December 02, 1991|By Michael J. Clark

Convicted murderer Harold Benjamin Dean remained at large yesterday after his Houdini-like flight in broad daylight Saturday afternoon from Maryland's "Supermax" prison, leaving behind questions about possible security problems at the formerly escape-free institution.

Officials at the state's highest-security prison said a security screen supposedly anchored to the concrete wall of Dean's cell had been broken open and might have been defective.

Investigators from the Division of Correction also wanted to know why observation and daily searches of Dean's single-inmate cell -- which is like the cells housing all 280 Supermax prisoners -- failed to detect the prisoner's "rope" of tied laundry and the wooden grapple he used in climbing to the prison roof.

Sgt. Gregory M. Shipley, spokesman for the Maryland Division of Correction, said there has been litigation over how secure the screens are that cover the narrow cell windows.

The problem, he said, is that the pins that anchor the bottom of the screen to the concrete wall might be subject to tampering. Metal plates placed over the pins months before Saturday's escape were broken away in Dean's cell, allowing him to reach and squeeze through a window opening measuring "no more than" eight inches high and 14 inches wide.

Dean apparently used his handmade grapple to attach his rope to the roof and laundry or linen to protect his body from a razor-wire barrier as he climbed 10 to 12 feet to the roof from his top-tier cell on the upper level of the four-story prison.

Dean was sentenced in 1981 to life plus 105 years for stealing $106,000 from a courier in the Monroe Street Montgomery Ward store, critically wounding a Federal Armored Express guard and killing a tow truck driver who encountered the getaway car in South Baltimore and chased it to Dean's home in the 100 block of South Stricker Street.

An accomplice -- the brother of Dean's wife -- was given life plus 45 years.

Sergeant Shipley, a state police officer assigned to the Division of Correction, said regulations at the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center -- the formal name for Supermax -- require guards to inspect cells once a day, when inmates are allowed to go to a secure area in the prison for one hour of exercise or showers.

Investigators were going over records yesterday to determine which guards checked the cell or "if the procedures were followed," Sergeant Shipley said.

He said investigators were also aware of the possibility that the escape could have been witnessed by inmates in the city jail's industries building across the street from Supermax, which is at 401 E. Madison St. "That is on our list to check," he said.

The escape was discovered at 1:40 p.m. when guards noticed pieces of clothing caught in the razor wire outside the narrow window of Dean's cell. Sergeant Shipley said Dean might have been gone for as long as an hour by then.

Video cameras are situated at various places in the complex, but none that covered Dean's window, Sergeant Shipley said.

"The fact that the escape occurred in broad daylight is a concern of the commissioner of corrections, Richard A. Lanham Sr.," the spokesman said.

Supermax was opened in January 1989 to control the "hard-core" inmates in the prison system. Prisoners are detained in Spartan 65-square-foot cells with the single narrow window, a vandal-resistant mirror, a stainless steel sink and toilet, a light fixture with a built-in public-address speaker and concrete-slab bed platforms.

Steel doors lock the inmates inside their cells, and meals are served on trays through slots in cell doors. The prison opened with 183 correctional officers, two guards for every three inmates.

James N. "Buck" Rollins, who was warden of the Maryland Penitentiary and was in charge of Supermax when it opened, said he thought the new prison was "the most secure jail in the state system. I did not think anybody would get out of it."

When he left in March to take over as director of corrections for Howard County, Mr. Rollins said yesterday, "there were problems with the security screens that the state was looking into then. The matter was in litigation when I left because there was concern how they were constructed. There was concern they could be tampered with."

Police across Maryland have been alerted to watch for Dean, who is 5 feet 11 inches tall, weighs 145 pounds and has brown hair and blue eyes. Because blood was found on the prison rooftops, officials think he might have cuts from the razor wire.

The escape was Dean's second from a maximum-security prison. He and another inmate escaped in September 1985 from the Maryland Penitentiary, a block from Supermax, using a rope of knotted sheets. When a guard spotted him and shot at him, Dean let go and fell to the sidewalk, breaking his ankle. He was caught a day later three blocks from the prison when he was spotted limping along Exeter Street.

Before his arrest in 1981, Dean was known on Stricker Street in his old Pigtown neighborhood as a stock-car mechanic, working in the neighborhood garage of a relative known as "Rabbit."

A former resident of the neighborhood, John Bradds, 31, who left 12 years ago and now lives in Ocean City, said yesterday that he and other youths hung around the garage and watched Dean and his brother-in-law "build up old cars with souped-up engines and wide tires."

A relative said Dean routinely sent Christmas cards to members of the family and had expressed "a feeling of hopelessness" because he was in prison.

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