HUGHESVILLE -- Inmates at the state's 175-bed Southern Maryland Pre-Release Unit in Charles County are suspected of committing a string of daytime burglaries in neighboring communities while they were out of the unit for work-release programs.
State corrections officials confirmed yesterday that a comprehensive investigation of criminal activity by pre-release inmates at the Hughesville facility began after a correctional officer found a stolen gun. The unit's manager has announced his retirement.
Officials are unsure how many inmates are involved, but several have already been transferred to higher-security prisons.
The daytime break-ins occurred at homes and stores in the Hughesville and Bryantsville areas of the southern Maryland county. The burglaries, which began approximately a month-and-a-half to two months ago, occurred during daylight hours, when most of the homes were unoccupied. No injuries resulted.
State corrections Commissioner Richard A. Lanham Sr. said state troopers assigned to the prison system's internal investigations unit were called to the facility about two weeks ago after a correctional officer located a gun on the grounds of the facility.
A subsequent shakedown of the pre-release unit led to the TC recovery of other items believed to be stolen from homes and businesses in areas near the facility. Troopers immediately notified Charles County sheriff's deputies, who were independently investigating the daytime crime spree. "We immediately assigned an assistant warden to go down and take over the unit," said Mr. Lanham. "And we've also assigned a four-person team of internal investigators not only to assist in any criminal investigation, but to determine whether security procedures were followed."
Maj. Raymond S. Grimes, manager of the pre-release unit, has elected to retire March 1, after 32 1/2 years with the Division of Correction, according to Sgt. Gregory M. Shipley, an agency spokesman. Major Grimes, 56, has worked at the pre-release unit since August 1959, when it was part of the state's old minimum-security work camp system.
"He's been contemplating retirement for some time now and is moving on," Sergeant Shipley said. "He's been an excellent employee and will be sorely missed."
Al Francis, assistant warden of the Maryland Correctional Pre-release System, has taken over the Southern Maryland unit. Mr. Francis started as assistant warden with the pre-release system last summer, following a shake-up that began with an investigation at the Baltimore Pre-Release Unit on Greenmount Avenue in late 1990.
Mr. Lanham's superior, Public Safety and Corrections Secretary Bishop L. Robinson, said yesterday that he could offer no details on the investigation, but he promised a full accounting at a later date.
Charles County officials declined to comment on their investigation.
But a source in the county sheriff's department said that officers in the property crimes unit had been unable to explain a string of daytime burglaries in neighborhoods near the pre-release unit until the state prison investigators contacted them. The number of burglaries could not be learned yesterday; most involved private homes, but at least one occurred at a store selling Buck knives-- at least one of which was recovered from the pre-release unit.
Police posters seeking information on the burglaries were posted throughout the Hughesville and Bryantsville areas.
Then, two weeks ago, a correctional officer at the pre-release center overheard talk among inmates about a stolen gun being hidden on the prison grounds. One source in the county sheriff's department said an inmate had been seen carrying the gun and had bragged to other inmates about the weapon.
According to prison officials, the correctional officer quickly learned the location of the weapon and recovered it, prompting the larger investigation.
The items believed stolen range from televisions, videocassette recorders and cameras to men's shoes and gold jewelry. Some of those items have been recovered inside the pre-release unit or on the wooded grounds of the 35-year-old facility.
Sources close to the investigation said that no evidence of any other criminal activity beyond the burglaries has been uncovered. The Southern Maryland unit is part of the Maryland Correctional Pre-Release System, which is made up of 13 pre-release units and centers and has headquarters in Jessup. The units maintain the lowest level of security in the prison system, housing inmates who are close to parole or mandatory release dates and are preparing to return to the community.