Inmates win belated releases from prisons Move comes after court clarifies March ruling on sentence lengths

October 20, 1998|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Eight prisoners who should have been released months ago finally walked out of their cells yesterday, the first to be set free after Maryland's highest court said this month that it did not mean for prison officials to lengthen some inmates' sentences.

Prison officials refused to release any details about the inmates or much about the prisons from which they were freed. Four left Hagerstown prisons, two left Baltimore prisons, one left a Jessup prison, and another left the Western Correctional Institution.

Attorneys who represent about 100 prisoners whose sentences were lengthened said the releases were belated but welcome. They also were denied the list of released inmates' names.

"It is overdue," said Stephan Z. Meehan, attorney for the Prisoner's Rights Information System of Maryland Inc. "I am glad to see things are moving forward."

The inmates released yesterday are likely to be followed by about 90 more in the next two weeks. All of the prisoners were scheduled to be freed as long as six months ago, Meehan said, but were held behind bars because their sentences were recalculated after a March opinion from the Court of Appeals.

That opinion, which dealt with the amount of time shaved off a prisoner's sentence for good behavior, prompted prison officials to recalculate the sentences of about 2,000 inmates, some of whom had been released. The Court of Appeals said in a 4-3 opinion this month that the court did not mean for prison officials to perform the recalculations and essentially told the officials to undo them.

About 25 prison staff members are "slowly and cautiously," refiguring the sentences. said Leonard A. Sipes Jr., spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. "Undoubtedly, there will be more releases this week and throughout the next several weeks."

The dueling opinions have sent prison officials scrambling to determine what direction to take. Their confusion is compounded by a blistering dissent delivered by the minority in this month's ruling.The dissent said the new method of calculation came down tougher on some parole violators.

"I thought it was only in the game of Monopoly that one could acquire in advance a 'get out of jail free card,' " wrote Judge Howard S. Chasanow.

The first recalculations came after the March ruling in the case of an inmate who claimed he had been cheated out of good-behavior credits. The ruling in his case led prison officials to decide that all sentences should be recalculated.

That meant some inmates were entitled to fewer good-behavior credits. Officials recalculated sentences and decided that about 90 freed prisoners should return to serve as much as five more years behind bars. Others who were still in prison had their sentences lengthened.

In May, squads of police officers fanned out across the state with warrants charging the released prisoners with escape. They arrested the ex-convicts, telling them they had to serve more prison time.

One former prisoner, Vincent Henderson, filed a claim in Baltimore Circuit Court saying he had been wrongfully reincarcerated. A judge agreed. After the decision, the other 52 former prisoners who had been rearrested also were released. The warrants for ex-prisoners not yet found were canceled.

Yesterday, Sipes said he expected lawsuits claiming wrongful imprisonment.from the inmates who were kept in prison past their scheduled released dates because of the recalculations.

"It would be highly unusual of if we did not receive lawsuits as the result of the court's latest decision," Sipes said. "The bottom line is, we must do what the court tells us."

Pub Date: 10/20/98

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