No space to isolate predators

March 02, 1994|By John Rivera | John Rivera,Sun Staff Writer

Richard C. Lewis, an inmate at the Anne Arundel County Detention Center, was convicted last week of mayhem for jamming a broomstick into the left eye of a fellow prisoner in an argument over cupcakes.

Two weeks ago, Michael Q. Brown allegedly hit another inmate with a combination lock he put in a sock. The inmate required reconstructive surgery for a shattered eye socket and jaw. Brown was charged this week with battery.

Detention Center officials say these are extreme examples of the types of assaults that occur regularly at the overcrowded facility on Jennifer Road because they have little room to separate the most violent inmates from the general prison population.

The jail has only 14 double cells to house the 24 most violent inmates. The rest live in dormitories varying in size from 20 people, including maximum-security inmates, to the 140-man work-release dormitory.

"The place is not designed for the type of criminal we're getting," Superintendent Richard Baker told the Planning Advisory Board last week, as he pitched plans for a $10 million renovation of the jail. "We've had people seriously assaulted."

Mr. Baker has been pleading for a new jail for more than two years, citing projections that predict the inmate population will reach 1,728 by 2010, more than double the capacity under state standards.

Recently, however, the jail population has dipped to an average of 565 inmates during the past six months because of programs that led to the release of about 75 people.

In 1993, 191 inmates were assaulted by other inmates, an average of 16 a month or 4 each week. Injuries ranged from bruises and scratches to cuts needing stitches to major damage requiring surgery.

The most assaults, 27, occurred in June when hot and humid temperatures make life almost unbearable in the dorms, which are not air-conditioned. October was next, with 25 incidents.

Although Detention Center officials did not have figures available for jail-house assaults in past years, they say that things are worse because criminals are more violent.

"I think we're getting a younger and meaner population in," said James P. O'Neill, deputy superintendent.

State police crime statistics for Anne Arundel appear to support him. In 1980, violent crimes -- including murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault -- represented about 6 percent of all major crimes reported. In 1990, they represented about 8 percent of major crimes, and in 1992, about 9 percent of the total.

But even more telling than the proportion of violent crimes is their sheer number. In 1980, there were 1,304 incidents reported, compared with 1,980 in 1992 -- a 52 percent increase.

William Mulford, the assistant state's attorney who prosecuted Lewis, agreed that Detention Center inmates tend to be more violent. "I don't think it matters where you put them," he said. "They commit many of the same acts.

"But if you put a whole lot of them together, you sure increase the chances that some violence will occur."

Mr. O'Neill said a more modern facility, with cells for individual inmates, would help cure much of his security headache.

Most problems occur in the original core of the jail, which was built in 1967. There, 20 inmates are crowded into each of eight 30-foot by 60-foot holding cells in two wings of two stories each. The cells are divided equally into sleeping quarters and a day room.

But nobody builds dorms like that anymore, Mr. O'Neill said, because assaults occur frequently, mostly over theft of the few possessions an inmate is allowed to keep. An inmate can be beaten up just for sitting on someone else's bunk.

"Your personal space in the jail is your bunk," he said. "Your possessions are it. Your possessions define you."

In the dormitory, each inmate has a gray, plastic box secured by a combination lock to keep possessions in. Now, they are using the locks as weapons, Mr. O'Neil said.

In an effort to minimize the mayhem, the Detention Center staff meets every Thursday to decide which 28 inmates should go to segregation cells. But the jail averages between 45 and 70 inmates at any time who need the highest level of security, he said.

"You may come in here with a serious assault with intent to murder and you may end up in a dormitory," Mr. O'Neill said. "We don't have the space to separate the predators."

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