Warden says penitentiary security lax Confidential memo reveals concerns after recent escape attempt

Inmate 'scoped out' prison

Moving prisoners on death-row to 'Supermax' suggested

January 06, 1996|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

The attempted escape of a condemned inmate has prompted internal criticism of security at the Maryland Penitentiary and may lead officials to move Maryland's death-row prisoners to a super-maximum security prison.

In a confidential memorandum on the Dec. 6 escape attempt of Scotland Eugene Williams, made available to The Sun, penitentiary warden Eugene M. Nuth wrote that the prison "is not a good maximum security facility" and that its routines "are too predictable.

"It is no secret that the maximum security designation of the penitentiary applies to the inmates, not to the ability of the facility to deliver maximum security," the warden wrote in the memorandum dated Dec. 18.

Despite the warden's concerns, escapes from the penitentiary are rare. Maxine Eldridge, a spokeswoman for the state Division of Correction, could not recall even another attempted escape in the past two years.

Williams, 32, was sentenced March 13 to die for the murders of lawyers Julie Gilbert and Jose E. Trias in their weekend home near Annapolis. He was housed at the penitentiary, which

houses the state's gas and lethal-injection chambers.

Mr. Nuth wrote that Williams had planned his escape almost from the moment he arrived at the imposing, 19th-century prison and that, "within a few months of arrival, [he] had completely and thoroughly 'scoped out' operational procedures."

Shortly after 6 p.m. on the night of the escape attempt, a correctional officer discovered that Williams had placed a dummy in his bunk, a common ruse that would-be escapees use to keep from being declared missing. Mr. Nuth wrote that the dummy was "very clever" and that, if not for a random fire drill, it might not have been discovered.

Meanwhile, Williams was hiding in another building, where he had stashed a rope of sheets and blankets, and a grappling hook taken from drum sets in the prison band room.

His plan, according to the report, was to wait for darkness, reach the roof of the building and slide down a wall to the street. To avoid detection, he had colored his tan coat black with Magic Markers, and to keep the rope from breaking, he kept his weight around 120 pounds.

But the fire drill interrupted Williams' plans. Officers, alerted that he was not in his cell, found him hiding in the barber shop.

Prison officials have long planned to transfer their most dangerous inmates out of the antiquated penitentiary.

Of roughly 800 inmates at the penitentiary now, 400 have been placed there from the Baltimore City Detention Center and are awaiting trial or sentencing. The rest are sentenced inmates, generally classified maximum security.

"We have already moved goodly numbers of inmates out," said Leonard A. Sipes Jr., spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

Richard A. Lanham Sr., commissioner of the state Division of Correction, said yesterday that he hopes to move maximum-security prisoners from the penitentiary to the newer Maryland House of Correction Annex in Jessup by this spring. That's when the 720-bed Western Correctional Institution is expected to open in Cumberland, providing more space in the prison system.

The penitentiary, in turn, eventually is to become an adjunct of the Metropolitan Transition Services Center, designed to house inmates who are close to release. The plan is to offer those inmates job-training skills that can help them avoid returning to prison.

But Mr. Lanham said the ease with which Williams dodged the penitentiary's security in plotting his escape wouldn't speed up the transfer of prisoners.

"He's a very ingenious inmate, like some of them are," Mr. Lanham said, pointing out that Williams did not make it all the way out.

The building's physical structure was not the only problem cited in Mr. Nuth's report. He also wrote that officers missed Williams' stash of materials and that "cell searches are not done well."

He recommended that officials seriously explore moving all inmates with death sentences to the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center, known as "Supermax," which was built in 1989 for the state's most troublesome inmates. Williams has been housed there since he tried to escape.

Mr. Lanham said that moving condemned prisoners was under discussion, but might be difficult because of the extra access those prisoners need to attorneys for appeals of their sentences. Supermax inmates normally have very limited telephone and visitation privileges.

The population at Supermax has declined steadily since an investigation last summer by the U.S. Department of Justice into allegations of beatings and harsh conditions there.

Besides putting condemned prisoners in those vacant spots, prison officials are considering creating a short-term "transportation hub" to house inmates from other prisons who must be brought to Baltimore to appear in court.

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