Minimum security at Jessup

Escape: Legislative hearing is needed to determine how convicts got out of prison undetected.

May 25, 1999

THE STATE Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services has a slew of questions to answer about last week's escape from the medium-security state prison in Jessup.

Security breaches gave hours of freedom to Gregory Lee Lawrence, a convicted killer, and Byron Lester Smoot, a convicted armed robber. The convicts were aided and abetted by a series of troubling breakdowns in the system.

Among the problems: A guard was slow to respond to a motion detector as the prisoners climbed a fence; a guard tower was left unmanned; one escapee apparently was not escorted from the infirmary back to his cell; the inmates mysteriously crossed the prison's yard undetected; and it took guards a half-hour to discover Smoot's absence and 3 1/2 hours to discover Lawrence's escape.

Also, four of six alarms failed to alert residents of neighboring communities in Anne Arundel and Howard counties. The prison tests these alarms regularly to assure that the surrounding communities know when something goes wrong so they can take precautions. The alarm system's failure exacerbated the danger and violated the prison's pact with its neighbors.

And, of course, corrections officials have to account for the troubling relationship between a former prison psychologist and Smoot.

The Division of Correction has disciplined officers for their mistakes. The next step should be a legislative hearing to pinpoint systemic problems that opened the door to this security lapse.

State public safety officials ought to be required to submit a report identifying all those responsible for the breakdown. They must take proper disciplinary action and assure legislators that holes in security are plugged.

A full public airing would help restore confidence among neighbors and in the rest of the state -- confidence that disappeared along with the inmates.

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