15 prisoners under death sentence transferred to Supermax facility Move follows population drop at high-security site, escape try at penitentiary

April 25, 1996|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Prison officials have moved 15 men under death sentence in Maryland from the state penitentiary to the supermaximum Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center, ending long-standing tradition and raising further questions about the use of the Supermax prison.

The move follows the steady decline in population at Supermax, on East Madison Street across from the penitentiary, and the attempted escape of a condemned inmate from the penitentiary.

The penitentiary houses Maryland's gas and lethal-injection chambers. Though no official death row is in the prison, condemned prisoners generally have been housed there.

The transfer was recommended by Eugene M. Nuth, warden of both prisons, in a confidential memorandum about the attempted escape Dec. 6 of Scotland Eugene Williams, who is under a death sentence for the 1994 killings of lawyers Julie Gilbert and Jose E. Trias in their weekend home near Annapolis.

The Dec. 18 memorandum detailed the warden's concerns about security at the 19th-century penitentiary, which he wrote was "not a good maximum-security facility."

Prison officials have been moving their most dangerous inmates from the penitentiary to the maximum-security Maryland House of Correction Annex in Jessup. Their plan is to make the penitentiary an adjunct of the Metropolitan Transition Services Center, which is next door and is designed to house inmates who are close to release.

At the Supermax adjustment center, the atmosphere is quite different. Inmates spend 22 to 24 hours a day alone in their 65-square-foot cells, exercising in small recreation areas only under heavy guard. They receive food trays through a slot in the door and are escorted by two officers virtually everywhere they go. It has no central meeting place for religious or self-help groups and no common dining area.

Access to attorneys

Joan Graham, a spokeswoman for the Division of Correction, said the prisoners sentenced to death were moved to Supermax so that they could remain in Baltimore, where access to their attorneys would be easier than if they were transferred elsewhere.

But advocates for prisoners said the move is further proof that the $21 million Supermax, which opened in 1989, is not being used as designed -- as last-resort housing for prisoners with unmanageable behavior or who are escape risks.

The prison came under scrutiny after a federal investigation last summer into alleged abuses of civil rights. Since then, a number of prisoners have been moved to other facilities, opening up cells.

Some of Maryland's condemned inmates have been in and out of Supermax for behavior problems. Williams, for example, was sent there after his attempted escape. But now all of them will go there -- and that's the problem, the advocates say.

"It's an egregious example of overclassification," said Nancy Moran, a Baltimore woman who serves as trouble-shooter for many inmates. "Supermax was supposed to be for behavior problems."

Ms. Moran also wondered whether the prisoners at Supermax will be able to prepare appeals of their convictions and sentences, and whether they will have necessary telephone access to their attorneys.

"Every effort is going to be made to make sure that these inmates have access to legal materials," Ms. Graham said.

Privileges in question

But Ms. Graham could not answer whether the death-sentenced inmates would be subject to the routine of other Supermax prisoners, or would get expanded privileges.

"I'm sure plans are being made to accommodate them in the best manner possible, not only for the inmates but also for public safety," she said.

Ms. Graham said a 16th man, Michael Whittlesey, also was being transferred to Supermax even though his death sentence was vacated by the state Court of Appeals. Whittlesey's conviction was upheld by the high court, and prosecutors in the case have said they will likely seek the death penalty in another sentencing hearing.

Pub Date: 4/25/96

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