Supermax escapee accused in Jessup break attempt

Officials continue probe into contraband violations

April 28, 2000|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

Harold Benjamin Dean -- the first convict to escape from Maryland's "Supermax" prison -- was among the five inmates accused in an attempted breakout from another maximum-security facility this week, authorities said yesterday.

The convicts -- all serving life terms for murder or robbery -- had 242 feet of nylon-braided rope, a grappling hook with a 3-foot curved steel rod, and a pair of toenail clippers, said Lt. Priscilla Doggett, spokeswoman for the state Division of Correction.

She was unable to confirm accounts given to The Sun by two corrections officers that the inmates also had a pulley, mountain-climbing rings, hacksaw blades and a rope-ladder with socks tied as rungs.

They were caught while trying to leave a fenced recreation yard Wednesday morning at the House of Correction Annex in Jessup, where the approximately 1,200 prisoners include some of the state's most dangerous criminals.

Prison officials said it was highly unlikely the five inmates could have made it past the annex's electronically monitored interior and exterior fences, or the multiple layers of razor wire in between.

"To my knowledge we've never had an escape through that kind of barrier," said Leonard A. Sipes Jr., spokesman for the Division of Public Safety and Correctional Services. "I don't know how it would be remotely possible."

But prison officers said it appeared the inmates planned to hook a rope between their residential building and an unstaffed guard tower, and rappel over the fences. They may have planned to climb down the tower on the 48-foot rope ladder.

No corrections officer was assigned to the tower on the side of the complex where the escape attempt occurred about 9 a.m. -- a result of prison system cuts in overtime in recent months, according to officers at the annex who included an official of their union.

But Doggett said armed officers are constantly circling the perimeter of the prison complex in Jeeps. "We know that the post cuts in no way impacted the actions of the inmates in the attempted escape."

Among the unanswered questions, however, is how the inmates acquired the rope and other gear, and kept it hidden.

Doggett said a security audit will be done as part of the investigation of the escape attempt.

But Jessup neighbors and activists said yesterday they're tired of hearing about audits and studies.

"After last summer's escape, they told us they were going to tighten security, review staffing levels," said Melanie Gutjahr, president of the Citizens' Advisory Committee for Correctional Institutions, referring to the incident at the House of Correction in which two inmates got away with the help of a prison psychologist.

"They tell us we're safe, but here we are again a year later," said Gutjahr, a Jessup resident. "They need to start being truthful about the funding that's needed for training and staffing, so we really will be safe."

A union official and the corrections officers said it was no surprise that the inmates had such elaborate weapons and contraband.

There hasn't been a "thorough facility-wide search" of the annex since a 1997 riot there, said Bernard Ralph Jr., president of the corrections officers' Local 1678 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

"If they had a massive shakedown more often, maybe they could have prevented the attempted escape," Ralph said.

Doggett said there are daily searches for contraband. She would not address how inmates could have stashed so much gear, saying only that there is a continuing investigation by the division's Internal Investigation Unit.

Corrections Commissioner William W. Sondervan may be able to address some lingering questions as early as today, Doggett said.

Four of the inmates were transferred to Supermax after Wednesday's attempt, while the other will be transferred to a prison in another state, officials said.

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