U.S. investigators barred from prison

March 17, 1995|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,Sun Staff Writer

State prison officials are refusing to let U.S. Department of Justice investigators into Maryland's only supermaximum security prison until the federal government details the complaints it has received about conditions there.

Federal investigators were to visit the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center, known as Supermax, this week as part of a probe into allegations of harassment, beatings by correctional officers and inhumane conditions.

The inquiry is to examine whether the state's operation of the prison violates the constitutional rights of inmates, and could result in a lawsuit to require improvements.

But state Assistant Attorney General Stuart M. Nathan called off the visit in a letter to Justice Department lawyers, saying he believed "the spirit" of federal law requires them to be more specific before the state has to let anybody into the prison near downtown Baltimore.

Federal investigators must provide details of the incidents and names of those involved before prison officials will talk about rescheduling the visit, Mr. Nathan said.

"I don't think it's anything out of the ordinary to expect that when someone wants to do an investigation, that they share with you the specifics of what they want to investigate," he said.

Justice Department spokesman Myron Marlin said the agency is "working with" the state in hopes of proceeding with its investigation. He noted, however, that as a matter of policy, the department does not reveal the names of people who make complaints.

The Maryland Division of Correction may be able to keep investigators out of the prison for some time.

A federal judge in Michigan last year refused to require that state's prison officials to give federal investigators access to two prisons for women. The Justice Department has continued its investigation there by talking to inmates during visiting hours.

The department in that case had received complaints that male officers were sexually assaulting female prisoners, and that the women had trouble getting medical care.

"Supermax" opened in 1989 to hold up to 288 inmates whom prison officials found too violent, prone to escape or simply troublesome to be kept anywhere else. Inmates spend all but an hour a day alone in their 65-square-foot cells, receiving food trays through a slot in the door and being escorted by two officers everywhere they go.

The federal inquiry began after members of the Maryland Committee for Responsible Corrections Policy, a loosely knit group of prison reform advocates, visited the Justice Department last summer with complaints of beatings, trouble getting medical care, and harassment from correctional officers.

Mr. Nathan said specifics would help the state investigate complaints independently and police its own system better.

"We get hundreds and hundreds of lawsuits every year from inmates who aren't afraid to complain," he said.

A member of the group that requested the federal probe said the state's stance is "an illustration of why the investigation is needed.

"They don't want anybody looking over their shoulder," said Jake Terpstra, a friend of a Supermax prisoner. "Anytime there's a closed system, people should be concerned because there probably are reasons they don't want it be open."

Mr. Nathan said: "There's nothing to hide. By no means is anyone shutting the door in their face."

Frank M. Dunbaugh, a former Justice Department civil-rights lawyer who now represents inmates in a case against the Baltimore City Detention Center, said the Justice Department could file a lawsuit first, then get access to information through the legal discovery process.

"The only question is what they need for a foothold to get in the door and file a case," Mr. Dunbaugh said.

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