Inmates finally freed 'good time' restored

Extended sentences end unexpectedly

November 04, 1998|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

When James Wagstaff talks about how much time he spent in prison, he doesn't say four and a half years. He talks in months -- that's 56 months or 1,736 days or 41,664 hours. Roughly.

The convicted auto thief can recount virtually every day of every month that he spent behind bars. That sentence was about to come to an end on May 16th. Two days before that, however, his case manager summoned him to say that Wagstaff's sentence had been recalculated. He had 19 more months to serve. That's 589 more days or 14,136 more hours.

Wagstaff went into a rage, yelling at his case manager and refusing to sign the piece of paper with his new release date on it.

"I went crazy," Wagstaff, 59, said recently at his East Baltimore home. "What did I do at Hagerstown other than worry about my time?"

Wagstaff is one of more than 100 inmates released from prisons across the state over the past three weeks after the state's highest court reversed an earlier opinion about calculation of "good-time" credits -- reductions in sentence length for inmates who behave properly in prison. The first decision in May lengthened their sentences; the October decision shortened them.

The prisoners' emotions seesawed as they gave away their belongings -- a prison custom -- only to ask for them back. Their tempers flared -- but were quickly harnessed -- because they knew that causing trouble could lead to more time behind bars. Bitterness swelled as they remembered the incentive programs they participated in that promised less time in prison -- only to have that promise broken.

"That's the kind of thing that incites people to anger and frustration and violence," said Stephan Z. Meehan, attorney for the Prisoner's Rights Information System of Maryland Inc., the state's legal services provider for prisoners. "It's all days to them. The way we value freedom is not nearly as precious as the way they do."

Leonard A. Sipes Jr., spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said there were an "awful lot of angry inmates" after the recalculations were announced in May after the first court opinion. Corrections officials tried to quell the inmates' anger by meeting with as many as they could and telling them that their lengthened sentences might change again after an appeal.

"Undoubtedly, it has made a difficult situation more dangerous. Many of the inmates did act adversely to the announcement that they would have to stay months or years longer than they were originally told," Sipes said. "But the state had no choice but to do what the law and the court told them to do."

The sentencing controversy started in May after the Court of Appeals ruled on an inmate's claim that he was cheated out of good time.

Prison officials saw the ruling as a signal to recalculate the sentences for 2,000 inmates. The recalculations meant some inmates received fewer good-time credits. About 50 released inmates were rearrested and told that they had to serve more time. Others who were scheduled for release in May and June saw those dates slip away.

In October, the court ruled that it did not intend for prison officials to change the sentences. So sentences were recalculated again. Since Oct. 19, prisoners have been trickling out of prison in groups of about 10 a day.

"It was like a joke. The officers would say, 'Oh, you're going to get released today,' " said Donnell Rouzer, a convicted drug dealer who was scheduled for release June 30 after three years behind bars. "It was aggravating to the point where I was almost to the point of getting in an altercation, but then I would jump on the phone and call my girlfriend and she would calm me down."

In the days prior to his June release date, Rouzer, 38, had given away his toothbrush, soap, shampoo and hair gel.

He had undergone the jail physical and was getting ready to have his release picture taken when a guard told him he wasn't leaving. Mystified and frustrated, he found out a month later that he would be in prison for four more months.

Sipes said the volume of cases meant that corrections officials weren't able to sit down with every inmate to tell them of their sentence revisions. Several -- like Rouzer -- did not find out until they were about to walk out the door.

Rouzer's and Wagstaff's belated releases came as surprises -- just like the news that their sentences had been lengthened. Both were told on Oct. 19 that they were being set free that day.

Wagstaff -- who walks with a cane because of a back problem -- hurried back to his 5-foot-by-9-foot cell.

Hanging inside were his "going-home" clothes: green pants, green shirt and green hat with a white Nike swoop on it that had been covered in plastic since May. He put his box of belongings in a shopping cart and wheeled it toward the prison's front gates. When the cart didn't fit through the doors leading to the main gate, he abandoned it. He tucked his cane under his arm and started running.

"I just wanted to get the hell out of there before they changed their mind," he said.

Pub Date: 11/04/98

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