Jessup escape prompts `fixes'

Warden transferred, prison officer fired, 3 guards suspended

June 05, 1999|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

With state legislators seeking explanations for the escape of two inmates from a Jessup prison two weeks ago, top prison officials said yesterday that they are transferring the warden and have fired a corrections officer.

Prison officials said they have suspended three guards for mistakes made after the escape May 18 from the Maryland Correctional Institution and are investigating allegations of negligence by as many as five others.

"We're going to make sure this doesn't happen again," said William W. Sondervan, the commissioner of the Division of Corrections. "We're trying to make long-term fixes."

Sondervan said the warden at MCI, Sewall Smith, will be transferred to the Maryland Reception, Diagnostic and Classification Center in Baltimore. Smith is not being punished, Sondervan said.

"Warden Sewall Smith is a quality employee," Sondervan said. "I want to get a fresh set of eyes in there."

The warden of the diagnostic center, William Filbert, will head MCI, Sondervan said.

The fired corrections officer was manning a guard tower, and her actions were described by officials as failing to follow security protocols.

"She worked in a tower, and she failed to do her duty," said Sondervan, who declined to identify her or the officers who have been suspended for 15 days without pay.

Bernard Ralph, president of the union local that represents the corrections officers, cautioned officials about placing blame squarely on the rank-and-file.

"Errors were made at all levels," Ralph said. "They need a scapegoat."

As officials continue their investigation, state legislators have mounted one of their own, scheduling a hearing for June 15.

Del. Peter Franchot, who oversees the prison system budget for the House Appropriations Committee, said he was looking for answers.

"We are expecting the corrections leadership to present steps they've taken so that errors committed aren't going to happen again," said Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat. "Mistakes were made."

Prison officials have said a series of errors contributed to the escape of Gregory L. Lawrence, a murderer, and Byron L. Smoot, an armed robber, from the medium security prison off Route 175.

The pair were allegedly aided by a psychologist who was fired from the Patuxent Institution and who visited Smoot 58 times at MCI, officials said.

Elizabeth L. Feil is accused of picking up Smoot and Lawrence after they escaped and driving them to freedom. Feil has been charged with harboring prison escapees, being an accessory and obstructing justice.

Besides acknowledging internal security lapses, which also included guards ignoring a motion detector alarm, officials have conceded that four of six alarms intended to warn residents of escapes did not sound. Those alarms were either disconnected or had fuse problems, officials said.

At a Thursday night meeting at MCI -- which reporters were barred from attending -- prison officials apologized to residents and state legislators for the escape. They also gave a brief overview of what happened and answered some questions, though not all.

"We still want to find out exactly why this happened," said state Sen. James E. DeGrange, a Democrat who represents the Jessup area and attended the meeting. "Why didn't supervisors do their jobs?"

Residents have expressed concern about the faulty alarms and a telephone system designed to update callers on escapes that malfunctioned after the escape.

"I truly believe they are sincere in intending to make sure this doesn't happen again," said Ruth Kalinowski, a Jessup resident.

But Reed Coble, also of Jessup, said he was fed up with excuses he's heard from prison officials. The alarms "seem to work well enough when they are being tested. The one time it would have been useful it didn't work. There is always an excuse we find rather lame," he said.

Prison officials said they will test and monitor the alarms more often and have upgraded the telephone system.

Sun staff writer Nancy A. Youssef contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 6/05/99

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