Bell Atlantic blamed for alarm failure in escape

June 16, 1999|By Michael Dresser and Del Quentin Wilber | Michael Dresser and Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Prison officials pointed their fingers at Bell Atlantic yesterday for the failure of four alarms to sound an alert to nearby communities when two inmates escaped last month from Maryland Correctional Institution in Jessup.

Richard Rosenblatt, director of neighboring Patuxent Institution, told legislators that a phone company employee diverted wires from the Jessup complex to the remote alarms while doing maintenance work. He said company representatives had repeatedly assured state officials that such a failure would not occur.

A Bell Atlantic spokeswoman contradicted that account and said prison officials should have been testing the alarms regularly.

The dispute arose as top state public safety officials trooped before a House subcommittee to explain how convicted murderer Gregory L. Lawrence and armed robber Byron L. Smoot escaped over a razor-wire fence May 18.

Public Safety Secretary Stuart O. Simms blamed "human error" -- not systemic failures -- for the breakout, which ended with both men being recaptured two days later. During their brief freedom, Smoot and Lawrence allegedly were helped by Elizabeth L. Feil, a psychologist who once worked at Patuxent, authorities said. Feil was charged as an accessory in the escape.

Simms and William W. Sondervan, commissioner of the Division of Correction, noted a series of "intolerable" blunders they said amounted to a breakdown in the performance of an entire shift of correctional workers.

Sondervan also added details that had been omitted from previous accounts of the escape.

For instance, he said the woman who called authorities to report that her son had seen two men go over the wall was the mother of an inmate. After hearing her son's account during a telephone conversation, the woman called MCI's central control room to warn of the escape.

The call alerted officials to a breakout that became possible only after a correctional officer in the prison's Tower No. 6 ignored or missed audible and flashing warnings that an escape was in progress, Sondervan said.

When a corrections sergeant in the control room reached the officer by radio to tell her that alarms were going off for prison Sector 17, she replied by saying there were no problems in Sector 16.

The sergeant accepted the erroneous response without further inquiry, Sondervan said.

The officer, who was a probationary employee, and the sergeant, a veteran, were fired.

Sondervan said prison authorities still have not found out what the officer in the tower was doing when the original warning signals went off.

"I don't know," Sondervan said. "Maybe she just froze." He said the officer would not tell prison officials what happened.

Besides those internal security lapses, officials said they let surrounding neighborhoods down by failing to ensure that all the alarms intended to warn of an escape were working.

While prison officials blamed telephone technicians for disconnecting the lines to the alarms, they conceded that their system for checking the alarms made no sense. Rosenblatt said that instead of having employees check the alarms, authorities relied on neighbors to inform them when they weren't working.

He said correctional employees are checking the alarms weekly, and that the state is looking into replacing the land-based system with wireless alarms.

"We need that system for public confidence," Rosenblatt said.

Pub Date: 6/16/99

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