134 lifers taken from prerelease system Midnight move to higher security follows murder, escapes

June 04, 1993|By Michael James | Michael James,Staff Writer Staff writer William F. Zorzi Jr. contributed to this article.

In the wake of a murder and two highly publicized escapes by inmates serving life sentences, all 134 lifers in the Maryland prerelease system were moved in the middle of the night to medium-security prisons, a correctional official said yesterday.

The move, at least for now, effectively removes lifers from work-release and furlough programs and lesser-security facilities.

More than 200 correctional and state police officers rounded up the inmates about midnight Wednesday at nine Maryland prerelease centers and bused them to their new prison assignments.

"My concern was for public safety and for public confidence in the system," said state Division of Correction Commissioner Richard A. Lanham Sr. "Since the Sam Veney incident, we've been reviewing our policies and procedures, and after the incident [Wednesday], I felt we had to move the 134 inmates back to higher security while we complete the review."

Sam Veney, 54, who killed a police officer on Christmas 1964, spent 10 days on the run after failing to return in April from a two-day pass from prison to visit his family. The news of the pass brought outrage from crime victims and victims' rights groups.

In an unrelated incident Wednesday, Rodney G. Stokes, 40, a convicted murderer on work release, walked into a construction trailer outside the Maryland Penitentiary and fatally shot his former girlfriend, Francine Evangela Harris. He then shot and killed himself.

Mr. Lanham said the two incidents -- along with an escape last month in which 65-year-old murderer L. V. "Lonny" Wade walked away from his Jessup work-release job -- have brought negative publicity to the prerelease programs.

"Some say, 'Lifers should go in and never come out.' But that's not for me to say," Mr. Lanham said. "Our first mission is public safety, but any correctional system also has another mission of reintegration and of preparing inmates for that reintegration. That includes inmates of all types."

In mid-May, corrections officials suspended the family leave program for lifers, which had granted Veney 18 passes prior to his escape.

Prerelease units are aimed at preparing inmates for a smooth and gradual return to society, mainly through work-release programs. The state has 357 inmates on work release, 57 of whom were lifers until they were taken out of prerelease yesterday. Not all inmates in prerelease are on work detail.

The beds the lifers left behind have already been filled by 134 inmates convicted of lesser crimes who had been on a waiting list, Mr. Lanham said.

The commissioner said it may be possible, after the departmental review is finished and some changes in policy have been made, for some of the lifers to return to prerelease.

Correctional officials reported no problems in the midnight move to the five medium-security prisons in Baltimore, Jessup and Hagerstown. But officials said many of the lifers were surprised by and angry over losing their prerelease status.

It is not the first time the state has removed inmates en masse from work release. In July 1989, 28 inmates, 19 of them murderers, filed suit protesting a decision to suspend them from work-release programs at the Patuxent Institution.

The programs were shut down after a public uproar over Patuxent's release policies when it was revealed that Robert Daly Angell, convicted of killing two Montgomery police officers and a teen-ager, had been granted a series of unsupervised furloughs.

A convicted rapist, James M. Stavarakas, also escaped from a Patuxent work-release program and committed another rape before his capture. In two inmate cases -- one on the state level and a second in U.S. District Court -- the state's right to suspend the work-release program was found constitutional.

Legal Aid Bureau, which represents Maryland inmates in civil rights actions, filed the 1989 suits.

Frances E. Kessler, an attorney with the Legal Aid's Prisoner Assistant Project, called Mr. Lanham's decision "a knee-jerk reaction to recent events."

"These were men and women going out to the community on a regular basis every day, obeying the law, obeying the Division of Correction's rules, earning money, paying taxes, paying for the cost of their incarceration," Ms. Kessler said.

"Now, even though they have not given any indication that they're a threat to public safety, they've been transferred to higher security, lost their jobs and quite possibly lost their opportunity for parole."

Asked whether Legal Aid would file suit over the suspension, Ms. Kessler said, "We have not eliminated any option at this point."

Susan Goering, legal director of the Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the state "probably has the right" to review the prerelease status of an inmate, but shouldn't do so on a mass basis. "We're always concerned when the state takes action against individuals because of group identification," she said.

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