Officials say prison sirens didn't sound

4 of 6 alarms in Jessup failed to warn of breakout

Breakdown cause unknown

Residents living near facility seek promise of better notification

May 23, 1999|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Four of six sirens that are supposed to warn residents about escapes from the state's sprawling prison complex in Jessup failed to sound Tuesday night when two inmates scaled a fence and disappeared into the woods.

State prison officials said they have not determined how the warning system failed. The sirens rotate on top of 25-foot towers scattered around the community that straddles the Anne Arundel and Howard County line.

Dave Towers, a spokesman for the Maryland Division of Correction, said one siren is believed to have failed during a recent storm and the other three were found to have been disconnected. He could not say how that occurred, or whether the sirens are now working.

The failure meant many residents who live near the prison were not immediately aware that Byron Lester Smoot, a convicted armed robber serving 29 years, and Gregory Lee Lawrence, a convicted murderer serving a life term, had broken out. Both were captured Thursday.

Many residents complained Wednesday that their first warning of an escape was search helicopters flying overhead. At the time, prison officials said that residents might not have heard the alarms.

But yesterday, Towers conceded that the residents were correct.

This breakdown is one of several security lapses that state officials have acknowledged since Tuesday's escape.

Other problems include an unmanned guard tower near the escape area; corrections officers who failed to respond to a motion-detector warning; a half-hour delay in noticing the first inmate was missing and 3 1/2-hour lag before determining a second had escaped.

By the time bloodhounds sniffed a trail to a phone booth less than a mile away, police sources said, the inmates had paged a former prison psychologist, Elizabeth L. Feil, who came and picked them up.

Feil's husband, Glenn Boss-hard, has told reporters that his wife had a sexual relationship with Smoot when she was a counselor at the Patuxent Institution and that she had continued to visit him at Maryland Correctional Institution in Jessup after she had been fired for setting up a post office box where inmates received mail, bypassing prison censors. Feil's lawyer, Isaiah Dixon III, denied yesterday that his client had a sexual relationship with Smoot and said much of what has been reported in the media is inaccurate.

"She's very upset with everything that has occurred," Dixon said. "Obviously, her husband's actions do not help matters any."

The lawyer declined to elaborate about Feil, citing the criminal investigation being conducted by Maryland State Police, who are trying to determine whether to charge the 43-year-old Annapolis woman with aiding in the escape.

Police said yesterday they have not filed charges against Feil and would not comment on their investigation. While state investigators try to figure out what went wrong inside the prison, they have suspended two corrections officers for 15 days.

Meanwhile, people who live outside the prison gates want assurances that they will be quickly notified the next time someone breaks out.

"We don't have too much of a problem," said Ruth Kalinowski, a member of the Citizens' Advisory Committee for Correctional Institutions, who has lived near MCI-Jessup for 26 years. "But if there is an escape, we would like an option of bringing our children inside and locking the door."

Kalinowski said she heard the siren during routine testing the Saturday before the escapes, but not Tuesday night. "There really is a problem with that," she said.

Towers said the alarms were triggered about 9 p.m., minutes after officers realized an escape had occurred. He said it is possible that residents who don't like the biweekly noon tests cut a wire. That happened a few years ago when a man apparently couldn't stand the noise from a siren on the edge of his property, Kalinowski said.

Towers said that before Tuesday's alarm failure, officials relied on community members to call them if they didn't hear sirens at the usual time. "Now they're going to be a little more adamant on checking," he said.

Pub Date: 5/23/99

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