Patuxent focusing on its staff

November 13, 1994|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,Sun Staff Writer

From strip-searching correctional officers to banning thermoses, Patuxent Institution administrators have turned their attention from inmates to staff in bolstering security after an inmate's escape in August.

The prison's director is investigating whether employees have been smuggling drugs into the Jessup prison. As a result of the crackdown, one officer already has been charged with drug possession and suspended since the escape.

But the searches and new rules have angered a number of officers, who believe they're scapegoats in the first escape from behind the maximum security prison's walls in 14 years. They also charge that administrators made it easier for the inmate to escape by failing to fix lights and letting him work in a fenced yard.

Kevin Siler, 31, was serving a 29-year sentence for armed robbery, escape and other offenses when he used a hacksaw to cut through two bars on his cell window Aug. 17. He used pliers to cut a hole through a razor wire security fence, and climbed another fence topped with barbed wire.

West Palm Beach, Fla., police captured Siler a week later, after he was alleged to have robbed two banks near there. He has been returned to Maryland and is being held at the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center. Known as Supermax, the prison designed for the state's most intractable inmates.

Three correctional officers were suspended without pay for 15 days for negligence in connection with the escape. Officials are seeking to fire a fourth.

Director Joseph Henneberry says he is proud of the vast majority of Patuxent officers, but suspects that a small number are taking drugs into the 1,000-inmate prison. "I think the greatest threat to security is complacency," he said. "I think that may have happened here."

During a series of Sept. 16 lockdowns to investigate rumors of guns and drugs at Patuxent, an officer was charged with drug possession and suspended after a small amount of heroin was found in her pocketbook. Several other officers were searched after administrators received information that they were taking drugs into Patuxent, but no drugs were found.

About a week later, every fifth officer on one shift was subjected to a strip search. Again, no drugs were found.

Warden Archie C. Gee said the strip search resulted from a supervisor's misinterpretation of an order to "frisk," or pat down, officers arriving for work. Eleven officers were ordered to disrobe before the mistake was discovered, said Leonard A. Sipes Jr., a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. Mr. Gee said he has apologized to all involved.

But that has not mollified the officers.

"People's confidentiality was breached," said Thomas Ridgley, who represents a number of Patuxent officers as business manager for Teamsters Local 103. "How do you maintain dignity when the inmates know you just stood up in the men's room to be strip-searched?"

Several officers echoed Mr. Ridgley's statements, but asked not to be identified, saying they feared losing their jobs.

"It was humiliating," said one who was searched. "The other officers were making fun of me afterwards, saying, 'Hey, you're a drug dealer.' "

Such searches have stopped, but Patuxent's officers face new restrictions. For example, employees are prohibited from taking thermoses or glass bottles into the prison. Their lunches and dinners are subject to visual inspection. Sandwiches must be encased in clear plastic or a factory-sealed container.

"Increased security will be an ongoing thing," Mr. Henneberry said. "You could put a .25 [caliber] pistol in a sandwich and bring it in here tomorrow. If you have a thermos, you could put in an inch of gin and throw Coke on top of it.

"I'm still looking for any type of drugs that come into this institution. I have been told by inmates where they get their drugs, but I have to prove it."

Meanwhile, the officers say, Mr. Henneberry should turn his attention to investigating alleged lapses that might have made the escape easier. Officers wonder why Siler was assigned to work in an inner yard at Patuxent, when administrators should have known he staged a daring, daytime escape from the Maryland House of Correction in 1989. They say the job gave Siler repeated opportunities to examine Patuxent's layout.

Mr. Gee said Siler used the frames of stairwell windows facing the yard -- windows likely broken that day by Siler or other inmates -- as a "ladder" to climb over a brick wall and onto a roof. From there, Siler jumped down to the inner fence and cut the hole, Mr. Gee said.

Siler always was supervised by correctional officers while working in the yard, Mr. Gee said. But when asked whether he would be likely to approve such an arrangement for an inmate who previously had escaped, Mr. Gee said: "No. The one thing about being human is hindsight."

Prison officers have raised other questions about the escape.

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