Cellular phones found in prison

Inquiry into gangs at Jessup facility also turns up drugs

Protest letter led to search

November 05, 1999|By Devon Spurgeon | Devon Spurgeon,SUN STAFF

An investigation of drug trafficking and gang violence at the maximum-security Maryland House of Correction has turned up a surprise -- inmates using cellular phones.

Four cellular telephones and a watch with a pager attachment, apparently smuggled into the Jessup prison, were found in recent searches of areas used by convicts. Corrections officers found nearly 2 ounces of marijuana, a half-ounce of heroin and a third of an ounce of crack cocaine in the cell of one gang member, prison officials said.

"The phone thing is new," said George B. Brosan, deputy secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. "We are not sure why we have it."

The investigation of contraband and illegal activity was prompted by the discovery Oct. 30 of a letter on a dormitory floor -- apparently typed and reproduced by a prisoner -- that called for a sit-down protest this week and listed 14 demands for changes in prison routine.

Although the demonstration did not materialize, prison officials said they saw the letter as an outgrowth of a "power struggle" among House of Correction inmates to fill the void created by the transfer of 60 of its 1,200 inmates -- suspected gang leaders and troublemakers -- in the past six months.

Demands ranged from a pay raise for prisoner work and improvements in recreation to officers not awakening inmates for random searches.

A day after the letter was found, a dozen inmates believed to be ringleaders in a jail-house gang were transferred to the state's Supermax prison, the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center in Baltimore, officials said.

The gang is believed responsible for the near-fatal beating of an inmate in August, they said. The victim -- Ralph Mills, 35, who was serving a life term for two murders, including the killing of a cellmate -- remains hospitalized, they said.

The prisoner had incurred a drug debt and was severely beaten by four inmates, prison officials said.

During a tour of the Jessup facility this week, prison officials said the presence of drugs appears to have decreased substantially as a result of stepped-up efforts to remove suspect inmates and cut off possible supply sources -- including a few correctional officers.

But the shrinking supply of narcotics might be contributing to other problems.

"The supply of drugs has diminished in half, and we expect to see an incremental step up in violence," Brosan said.

Prison officials say they are searching for cellular phones as well as investigating the source and use of those found. They are planning to use a new recording system to more closely monitor calls made by inmates on pay telephones in recreation areas.

Recordings of conversation will be monitored for "street slang and other keywords" suggesting illegal activity. The taping is legal, officials said, as long as the person on the other end of the call agrees to it -- and that will be a condition of using the telephones.

Inmates' phone calls to their lawyers and clergy will not be recorded, officials said. The use of patrols and drug-sniffing dogs has been increased in the prison, and an ion scan -- which detects whether a person has had recent contact with drugs -- is being used to screen inmates, visitors and corrections staff.

In February, four corrections officers who failed drug tests were fired, and another quit after refusing to take a urine test. Duties of the warden, Thomas R. Corcoran, who had run both the House of Correction and the next-door annex, were shifted to supervision of the annex only.

Ronald Hutchinson, a 30-year veteran of the Division of Correction, was put in charge of the House of Correction and picked its top management.

"It is a culture change; everyone has to be held accountable," Hutchinson said of the prison where, he noted, 40 percent of the corrections officers have less than three years' experience.

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