Blocking out violence at city jail

New security team prevents incidents at detention center

May 24, 1999|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

The call goes out late Thursday morning along the echoing corridors of cellblock B at the city detention center -- "Lock in, gentlemen!" -- and a grumbling parade of inmates heads toward two rows of gloomy, narrow cells. Heavy doors begin shutting with clanks and thuds.

Then, from around the corner come the Men in Black -- five beefy guys, silent and expressionless, decked from head to toe in black, belted uniforms, with pants tucked into polished boots. Soon, their five sets of gloved hands are poking and probing for whatever drugs or weapons this latest unannounced search can turn up.

Such work is the centerpiece of a new strategy yielding dramatic results for LaMont W. Flanagan, who oversees the city jail and its 4,000 inmates as commissioner of pretrial detention and services.

For the most recent quarter ending March 31, inmate violence was down by nearly 43 percent from the quarter before the program went into effect in October. Inmate attacks on employees during that period dropped from 57 to 31, while stabbings and slashings of inmates fell from 24 to 9.

Flanagan attributes the success mostly to more effective searches carried out by the Men in Black, a nickname that inmates gave to the new special security team. Its efforts have helped ferret out more of the usual jail-house arsenal -- the homemade "shanks," or knives, fashioned from any and every piece of metal, wood or plastic an inmate can steal, smuggle or tear loose from the furnishings.

The effort hasn't cost a penny more of the public's money. The Men in Black are corrections officers who volunteered for reassignment from regular duty. Other changes are simply new ways of doing things. When moving inmates from place to place, officersdivide them into smaller, more manageable groups.

"What we're endeavoring to do here is create an environment of zero tolerance of violence, and a climate of peaceful coexistence," Flanagan said.

`Routine behavior'

Prison violence isn't often regarded as controllable. Chronicled and mythologized in everything from government reports to Tom Wolfe novels and Hollywood movies, frequent and murderous attacks are generally viewed as inevitable, even at a jail where the average stay is about 38 days.

"It is often accepted as routine behavior," Flanagan said. "The violence of the streets is simply transported behind the walls."

Judging by his comments after stabbings and attacks in previous years, Flanagan shared that sense of inevitability until September. That's when Maryland Public Safety and Correctional Services Secretary Stuart O. Simms dispatched him and other officials to Rikers Island, the New York jail with a rough reputation.

There they found a new program cracking down on violence with stunning results, an effort headed by New York City corrections chief Bernard Kerik. In October they started their program, and began using some of the same tactics.

To form the Men in Black, jail officials asked for volunteers, selecting those with the most reliable records. There are seven special security officers, plus six more assigned from the K-9 unit with its drug-sniffing dogs. The combined team is led by Capt. Frank Day.

Each member received three weeks of extra training, plus new uniforms and better equipment, including hand-held scanners that can sniff out aluminum objects that can pass undetected through the bulkier airport-style scanners.

Attitude change

They also got an attitude adjustment. Gone is the chitchat among themselves, or the banter that sometimes marks the relationship between guards and inmates, for better or worse.

"Their job is to control," Flanagan said, "and you can't do that by gossiping and joking and being a philosopher."

Violence began decreasing during the first quarter of the new program, although a slaying occurred Oct. 30, when 19-year-old inmate John Jackson, serving time for car theft, was stabbed in the torso by another inmate while being moved from one part of the jail to another.

No one has been killed since then, and the number of attacks has continued to drop.

For inmates, the new program took some getting used to, particularly the sudden arrival of the mysterious Men in Black.

"They were saying, `Who are you guys?' " recalled Ray Booker, an officer on the new team. "They thought we were a federal task force."

Search techniques

On Thursday, Booker and four of his teammates set out on another search, using the techniques that turned up 237 weapons last quarter. In the previous three years, the biggest quarterly haul had been 44.

Proceeding three cells at a time, the five officers handcuffed inmates before ordering them out of their cells, placing them in the corridor facing the opposite wall.

Then they went through each cell, corner by corner, bar by bar, bag by bag, piling inmate belongings into forlorn mounds of paperbacks and puzzle books, threadbare linens and spare clothes.

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