Escapees quick, guards slow, officials say

Prison authorities discipline officers after felons break out

May 22, 1999|By Del Quentin Wilber and Peter Hermann | Del Quentin Wilber and Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

In the wake of an embarrassing escape by two felons this week, top prison officials are blaming lax security and said yesterday that negligent corrections officers failed to notice the breach quickly enough and then were tardy in their reaction.

Corrections officers were not aware that anything was amiss at the Maryland Correctional Institution until a woman called to say her son had seen two men jump over the fence and flee into nearby woods.

A motion detector sounded as the escapees scaled the fence, but the guards monitoring it were slow to respond.

"We should have found out right away," said William W. Sondervan, acting commissioner of the Division of Corrections. He said two corrections officers have been suspended for 15 days and up to three more face further discipline.

The anonymous woman's call came at 8: 23 p.m., but it would be another half-hour before scrambling corrections officers determined that Byron Lester Smoot, a convicted armed robber, was missing. It would another 3 1/2 hours before they realized that a second inmate, a convicted murderer named Gregory Lee Lawrence, also had made it out.

By that time, prison officials said, the escapees had walked to a pay phone less than a mile away and called a former prison psychologist who had visited Smoot 58 times between September and May 16.

Police said they believe Elizabeth L. Feil picked the inmates up in her car.

"It was human error," Sondervan said last night. "It was people not doing what they should have been doing. ... I don't think corrections officers helped them escape. The officers were simply negligent in their duties."

Police and federal agents captured Lawrence and Smoot Wednesday afternoon -- one at his girlfriend's East Baltimore home, the other at a Pulaski Highway motel.

Lawrence was serving a life sentence for shooting and robbing a man in 1978 in North Baltimore. Smoot was serving 29 years for 11 armed robberies in Anne Arundel County.

Investigations have been launched on two fronts: officers who apparently missed Smoot and Lawrence in a prison yard that was supposed to be off-limits to inmates, and into Feil and her alleged role in helping them.

Smoot met Feil at the PatuxentInstitution, a maximum-security prison in Jessup. Smoot was there from July 1997 through August last year, officials said.

Prison officials said Feil was fired in June 1998 for inappropriate contact with inmates; they said she set up a scheme by which she could send and retrieve letters from convicts and bypass censors.

In August, officials said yesterday, Feil began visiting Smoot at the Maryland Correctional Institution, sometimes twice a day.

Prison officials said that because Feil had been fired as a contractual employee, she should have been barred from prison visits. They blamed an antiquated tracking system that relies on paper for that lapse and said they were upgrading to computers.

"If you have a list of people on index cards in Hagerstown, that doesn't help very much in Baltimore," said George B. Brosan, deputy secretary of the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

Prison officials said Smoot and Lawrence developed an elaborate escape plan that began days or weeks earlier when they sold extra clothing to other convicts and hoarded food.

They chose a day when it was well-known by inmates that the main tower was unmanned. Tuesday is the only day visitors are not allowed, and officials said they thought it unnecessary to guard part of the complex that should be empty of people.

Correctional officers had complained to the prison warden in August about the unstaffed tower. Prison and union officials blame tight funding and job vacancies.

Prison officials were unable yesterday to say how Lawrence got out of his cellblock, through a restricted area and to the fence. But they were able to detail part of Smoot's escape, which began about 7: 20 that evening when he returned from an exercise yard and complained that he was having an asthma attack.

A corrections officer wrote him a pass that allowed him through several checkpoints and offered access outside to the main administration building, where the infirmary is. He arrived there at 7: 30 p.m.

He was seen by a nurse, who checked his vital signs and pronounced him healthy. Sondervan said the attack was faked. The nurse refused his request for ice, and a corrections officer escorted him out at 7: 45 p.m. What happened next is unknown.

According to procedures, Smoot should have been watched as he made his way back through checkpoints to his cellblock.

Instead, officials said, he somehow linked up with Lawrence and both made it to the fence. They were next seen about 45 minutes later by the anonymous caller's son as they scaled the fence. How they made it across the yard undetected is unknown.

"That's a long way to go through an open area," Sondervan said. "That's something we have to unravel."

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