'Supermax' escape foiled the latest in prison technology

December 08, 1991|By Douglas Birch

When Harold Benjamin Dean, holdup man and murderer, wriggled out of a cell window at Maryland's "Supermax" prison Nov. 30, he foiled one of the first of a new generation of advanced-technology prisons.

Several experts said they had never heard of a previous escape from any of the Supermax-style prisons built by perhaps 10 states in recent years to hold their most violent or escape-prone inmates.

Maryland corrections officials blamed Dean's escape on the failure of officers to follow the prison's ultra-strict procedures, including a requirement that prisoners be handcuffed and escorted whenever they leave their cells and that all cells be "shaken down," or searched, every time a prisoner walks out.

But that lapse appears to have let Dean exploit possible weaknesses in the prison's windows and the absence of any alarm system on the roof of the $21 million prison, said Norman Wirkle, a Colorado architect who has reviewed plans for Supermax-style prisons for the American Correctional Association.

Mr. Wirkler said one key point was "not very well thought out: What if the guy gets out [of his cell window]? Where do we go from here?"

The Supermax-style prisons, such as those built recently in Maryland, Oklahoma, Indiana, New York and Florida, are not simple lockups designed to keep prisoners within their walls during the day and their cells at night.

They are sophisticated incarceration machines, designed and equipped to confine slippery or dangerous inmates to their cells 23 hours a day or more, offering them little contact with guards or other prisoners and slim chance for mischief.

Among the Maryland Supermax's 280 inmates are some of the state's most notorious criminals, including Flint Gregory Hunt, convicted of killing a Baltimore police officer in 1985; John fTC Frederick Thanos, a convicted robber and rapist charged with killing three teen-agers during a crime spree in the summer of 1990; and Anthony Grandison, who machine-gunned two employees of Pikesville's Warren House motel in 1983.

Sgt. Gregory M. Shipley, a prison spokesman, said Dean's accomplice worked on sawing a hardened-steel bar 16 hours a day for a month. Given that much time, he said, the inmate might have breached any bar. He conceded that, in retrospect, a roof alarm seems like a good idea.

"We thought that, with the procedure and everything, it was foolproof," said George Bushey of Bushey Associates in Hagerstown, the prison's designers. And if officers had followed procedures, he said, it would have been.

Before the escape, Sergeant Shipley said, the state decided to install new roof barriers above the cells in Dean's 12-cell "pod" and awarded the $48,000 contract Monday, two days after Dean fled.

In the past few days, he said, workers have begun welding shut the steel-mesh grills covering the inside of the windows, one of which Dean's accomplice was able to uncover and open.

Sergeant Shipley added that other unspecified "changes" would made in the roof.

Experts agreed that Dean's escape is further proof that, left to him self or herself, an ingenious prisoner can beat even the most sophisticated prison.

Prison officials around the country say that as the U.S. prison population has swollen to about 1 million, pressure has developed to build a new style of prison to house the 1 percent or 2 percent of inmates who cause most of the trouble: assaulting guards, dealing drugs, killing other inmates, staging escapes or running prison gangs.

The model for operating these prisons is the federal Bureau of Prisons' highest-security penitentiary in Marion, Ill.

Kevin Murphy, a spokesman for Marion, said the prison switched to the super-maximum operation in 1984, six years after being designated the collection point for troublemakers elsewhere in the federal system.

From 1978 to 1984, 15 murders were committed at the prison, he noted. Escape attempts were frequent. A near-riot in October 1983 left two correctional officers and an inmate dead.

"We tried to run it in as open a fashion as any other institution," he said. "It did not work. The end result was mayhem."

So what has become the "Marion model" of handling inmates was invented. The new Supermaxes are the first full-scale prisons specifically tailored to that model. Since 1984, Marion has not had a murder or an escape.

In general, Marion-style prisons confine inmates to their cells most of the day, letting them out only with restraints and under escort.

All doors are controlled by officers in bulletproof booths. Visits are conducted only over telephones and through glass so that a sweetheart can't pass a drug or a hacksaw blade during a seemingly innocent kiss. There are no vocational training courses, no remedial classes, no counseling sessions -- no place where inmates are allowed to gather in groups.

There is a minimum of metal that might be ripped loose and fashioned into weapons: Bunks are slabs of concrete, light fixtures are securedbehind bars, and toilets are solid pieces of stainless steel.

In Marion, even plastic wrap is banned from food trays, after authorities found it could be repeatedly melted down to form a plastic hard enough to fashion a sharp weapon.

The design for these prisons seems to be growing more fortress-like. Oklahoma State Penitentary's new H Unit, an addition to the prison complex in McAlester, was built without cell windows and partly buried beneath a surrounding dirt mound, putting all but about 12 feet of it underground.

The American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project thinks locking people in Supermax-style prisons amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.

"It's a giant step backward in corrections," said David Fathi, an ACLU staff attorney. "It is totally counterproductive. When you treat people like animals, they are going to act like animals."

In theory, Supermax prisons also try to modify inmate behavior by providing small privileges for those who obey the rules.

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