Guards blamed in 'Supermax' prison escape State says 3 failed to follow procedures for securing inmates

December 03, 1991|By Thom Loverro

A convicted murderer was able to escape from "Supermax" because guards failed to follow strict security procedures used to control the most dangerous inmates in the state prison system, corrections officials said yesterday.

The Division of Correction moved to fire two correctional officers and gave another a three-day suspension, said Sgt. Gregory M. Shipley, spokesman for the division. He would not identify the officers.

Another inmate helped Harold Benjamin Dean to escape the state's highest-security prison Saturday through a scheme that worked due to failures by officers to watch and secure the two inmates properly, Sergeant Shipley said. The escape was the first from the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center in Baltimore, also known as "Supermax."

Dean, 40, who was serving a life term plus 105 years after a 1981 sentence for stealing $106,000 from a Montgomery Ward store, critically wounding an armored car guard and killing a tow truck driver, remains at large.

Dean had the help of John Dempsey, 40, who was in the cell next door serving a life term for rape, Sergeant Shipley said. Dean's cell door was opened to allow him to leave to take a shower, but he declined. The door was closed, but Dean had already crawled out of his cell on the floor, out of view of video cameras.

Dempsey's cell was also opened to allow him to go for a shower, but he changed his mind after leaving and returned to his cell. Dean crawled into Dempsey's cell undetected.

Neither of the cell doors should have been opened without the inmates handcuffed or without officers by the cells, Sergeant Shipley said.

"Security procedures at Supermax require that whenever an inmate is allowed out of his cell, no less than two correctional officers are to go to the cell door," he said. "The inmate is then required to extend his arms behind him through a food slot in the cell door to be handcuffed."

Only then is the door to be opened, Sergeant Shipley said.

"The investigation has shown that this was not done and that there was not even an officer on the tier when the cell doors were opened," he said. "The Commissioner [Richard Lanham] says that the evidence clearly shows that had these procedures been followed, the escape would not have occurred. And if the cell had been checked as prescribed, the attempted escape would have been discovered long before it had occurred."

The two inmates created a space between the cell window and the security screen using a makeshift screwdriver that Dean made from a piece of metal from orthopedic shoes he had been given.

Dempsey used the screwdriver to loosen the window and also used saw blades he smuggled in to cut the outer window. Dempsey could not fit through the space -- about 8 inches long and 22 inches wide -- but Dean did, and, standing on the window, he was able to pull himself to the roof. He used a rope made of such things as pieces of denim, towels, laundry bags and underwear elastic to cross several other rooftops of Supermax, then tied the rope around a vent and climbed down to Constitution Street, Sergeant Shipley said.

Officers discovered the escape later Saturday afternoon after they saw jackets and blankets out on the grounds that Dean had apparently used to protect himself from wire barriers on the climb to the roof, Sergeant Shipley said.

The investigation is continuing and "further personnel action is a possibility," Sergeant Shipley said. It was the first escape from the 2-year-old facility, which holds 275 prisoners.

The search goes on for Dean, who is described as 5 feet 11 inches in height and 145 pounds, with brown hair and blue eyes. Since blood was found on the roof of the prison, officials believe he may have cut himself on the razor-wire security barriers, officials said.

In September 1985, Dean and another inmate escaped from the Maryland Penitentiary, a block from Supermax, using a rope of knotted sheets. He was caught a day later. Dean broke his ankle in the escape and was given the orthopedic shoes he wore as a result of that injury.

One of the two officers suspended pending final termination has filed an appeal. The suspension is the first step in the firing process of a state employee, said Ricardo Silva, field representative for the Maryland Correctional Union.

"This is another situation where officers are being used as scapegoats to keep the blame as far away as possible from management," said Mr. Silva, who said his union represents about 80 employees at the prison and more than 1,000 statewide.

"Considering how the inmate escaped, we think it is ludicrous to fault the likes of the correctional officers only," Mr. Silva said. "From what we see so far, it is clearly a problem with the structure of the cell windows, which the inmate saw and took advantage of."

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