4 officers fired at Jessup prison

Drug raid also leads to transfer of warden

February 20, 1999|By Del Quentin Wilber and Devon Spurgeon | Del Quentin Wilber and Devon Spurgeon,SUN STAFF

In the wake of a raid last weekend at the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup, state officials have fired four corrections officers who failed drug tests and another officer has quit after refusing to take the test.

Three other officers, who failed preliminary tests during a raid at the prison Feb. 13, have been placed on administrative duty pending the results of follow-up urine tests, authorities said.

Officials have also overhauled the prison administration, transferring the warden, Thomas R. Corcoran, and naming one warden to run the House of Correction and another to run the annex next door. Both had been run by Corcoran.

"It was too big for one warden to handle," said William W. Sondervan, acting state corrections commissioner. Sondervan declined to comment on Corcoran's performance.

Seeking to break up a ring of inmates officials said were trafficking in narcotics and exerting too much control over prison life, state corrections officers raided the prison looking for drugs and weapons.

Afterward, they transferred 19 inmates, most serving life sentences for homicide, to the state's Supermax prison in Baltimore. The inmates will be locked in individual cells 23 hours a day.

Contraband seized included 12 unidentified pills, a foil ball containing marijuana, and plastic bags containing marijuana, cocaine and heroin, officials said.

Investigators also recovered 15 homemade knives and a pair of scissors. They acknowledged that inmates managed to get rid of some drugs -- "flushed or swallowed," Sondervan said.

"The message that we're sending, make it loud and clear, is that we're not going to tolerate employees who use drugs or bring drugs into our institution," said Sondervan.

Officials said they are not close to pressing criminal charges against inmates or prison employees in the continuing investigation. Also under scrutiny is whether correctional employees sold sex to inmates.

Union officials said they support the investigation.

"If the tests were appropriately administered and properly handled, that is not a problem," said Sgt. Bernard Ralph, a corrections officer and president of Local 1678 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. "The union does support the tools that are used to rid us of our unsafe workplace."

Officials did not name the officers who were fired or the one who quit, saying they are awaiting the possibility of appeals.

The raid followed months of investigation. Last spring, investigators learned that 12 percent of the 1,176 inmates at the House of Correction were testing positive for drug use -- much higher than the state's 3.7 percent average.

About four months ago, the investigation intensified, officials said, and they began focusing on one inmate -- imprisoned for a 1979 Baltimore murder -- and several of his confederates, who officials said were exerting too much influence on prison life.

Though officials released few details, some said privately that the inmates controlled a drug trade and corrupted officers. The only way such high levels of drugs, as indicated in the tests, could enter the prison was with the help of corrections employees, officials said.

"It was a concentration level that simply could not have been supported without corrections employees," said Sondervan, who added that drugs were also smuggled in through visitors and confidential mail from inmates' lawyers.

Inmates were able to roam fairly freely because of the design of the House of Correction, built in the last century, and its seven large dormitory rooms of bunks, officials said. With the prison's nooks and crannies, they said, it was easy for inmates to act covertly.

Union and corrections officials said some blame rested with Corcoran. He declined to comment yesterday.

"As the warden, he should have known that stuff was going on," said a corrections official familiar with the investigation who declined to be identified. "He was given an enormous responsibility too big for one person to handle."

Said Ralph, the union head: "There could have been more control of the inmates."

Officials said they would make no public assessments of responsibility until the investigation is finished.

"The overwhelming majority of our employees are good employees," Sondervan said. "They are good, honest, decent people. There are only a few involved in this."

In Corcoran's stead, the House of Correction will be run by Ronald Hutchinson and the annex by Patrick Conroy, Sondervan said. Both are corrections employees,

Officials said they also cracked down on the inmates because they were getting ready to institute new security programs funded by a $475,000 federal grant. Both the House of Correction and the annex will get video cameras and increased drug detection with dogs and an ion scanner, which "electronically sniffs" for narcotics.

Officials also said new Bell Atlantic equipment will allow investigators to tape-record every phone call made by inmates and register its destination.

The new technology will use voice recognition software to better trace inmates, said Sondervan.

Inmates will also be offered more drug treatment and educational programs, he said.

Pub Date: 2/20/99

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