Officer shifts blame in jail death Booking center crowd, medical staff cited in failure to treat Griffin

April 10, 1997|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

A correctional major under investigation for failing to get hospital treatment for a prisoner who died a short time later blamed his actions on strained resources at Baltimore's Central Booking and Intake Center and on the jail's medical staff.

In two reports, Maj. Wallace C. Laster wrote that he did all he could to help Daniel Griffin, given the crowding that day at the booking center.

Griffin, 53, died while alone in a cell Feb. 12, the day after his wife, Angelina, called police because her husband -- an alcoholic who began to drink heavily after losing his job a year ago -- had threatened to shoot her.

Two internal investigations by the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services have found that Laster did not get Griffin to a hospital for treatment for alcohol withdrawal, despite two orders to do so from a physician's assistant and a doctor, according to sources familiar with the investigations.

Griffin became ill about 1 p.m. the day he died. About 20 minutes later, Laster received a written order from physician's assistant John Gerwig, who wrote that Griffin needed an "emergency" transfer to the Maryland Penitentiary hospital.

In his account -- contained in two reports made available to The Sun -- Laster wrote that the booking stations, holding cells and entrances were crowded with waiting prisoners. He wrote that if he had sent someone to take Griffin to the hospital, other officers would have been put at risk of assault.

Laster wrote that when Griffin became sick again shortly after 2 p.m., he ordered the prisoner taken back to the Central Booking dispensary -- the best place, he thought, for Griffin to await transportation to the hospital. But another officer brought Griffin back to Laster, saying there was no staff in the dispensary to monitor the prisoner.

"I sent him to the [dispensary], where medical care could be provided," Laster wrote. "The medical staff refused to provide this care."

According to sources, Laster told a Division of Correction investigator that Dr. David Holliday told him that afternoon that it was not necessary to call 911 for Griffin. But Holliday and correctional officer Larry Morris, who overheard the conversation, said the doctor told Laster that he was to get Griffin to a hospital right away, and to call paramedics if necessary, sources said.

Laster wrote that after Griffin returned from the dispensary, he placed the prisoner in holding cell 2C-15 and assigned two correctional officers to take him to the penitentiary hospital. He said he turned the case over to the next shift commander and left the jail about 5 p.m.

But according to sources, investigators found that Laster never told the shift commander, Lt. Lawrence O'Brien, that Griffin needed emergency transportation.

Correctional officer Donna Clayton found Griffin's body sprawled on the floor of his cell, where he was pronounced dead at 6: 10 p.m. An autopsy found he had died of cirrhosis of the liver and cardiovascular disease.

"Given past practices in taking inmates to the MPen infirmary, the lack of guidelines, rules and regulations covering situations of this nature and the lack of resources available at this time, my response to the situation was proper," Laster wrote.

Without commenting specifically on Laster's statement, Dr. Anthony Swetz, director of inmate health care services, said the booking center's medical staff did nothing wrong in Griffin's case. He said the booking center's dispensary has no hospital beds and is set up mainly to conduct screenings and administer medication.

"Care was absolutely appropriate," said Swetz. "In point of fact, I think the care was exceptional, in that it was made clear on a number of occasions that this was a person that had an urgent medical situation who needed prompt attention."

Barbara Cooper, a spokeswoman for the booking center, would not comment on Laster's statements, citing a continuing review of the case.

Laster, 50, has declined to be interviewed. "I don't think it would be appropriate for me to comment on an ongoing investigation," he said yesterday. He is on paid administrative leave while the Department of Public Safety conducts a third inquiry into Griffin's death.

Laster's statements about an overwhelmed booking center echo a recent series of letters sent anonymously by writers who identified themselves as correctional officers at Central Booking. The letters, some addressed to city police officers, complain that correctional officers are routinely drafted to work double shifts because of a shortage of personnel.

"We do this so that possibly, maybe, you could help us by joining in our struggle with complaints to the [police] Commissioner, and with also limiting your arrests to the minimum number that you can so that it will ease the pressure off of us a little; and so that they will stop working us like slaves," one letter said.

Pub Date: 4/10/97

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