Inmates' plan was unlikely to work, officials say

Would-be escapees had ropes, bandages

April 30, 2000|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

Despite a substantial stash of equipment, five convicted killers and robbers had little chance of escaping the maximum-security Maryland House of Correction Annex last week, prison officials said.

Division of Correction Commissioner William W. Sondervan said Friday that the inmates -- including Harold Dean, who has escaped from Maryland's Supermax prison -- had rappeling gear, ropes, a hacksaw blade, and -- just in case -- adhesive bandages.

"This is not that unusual," Sondervan said of the materials they had accumulated: 242 feet of nylon-braided rope weighted with a padlock, another rope with socks tied along its length to make climbing easier, a small hacksaw blade, grappling hooks to attach to rings for sliding down ropes, heavy-duty gloves, nail clippers, alcohol swabs and aspirin.

"This happens in prisons," he said. "Little by little, they steal and hide things around the prison."

At a Friday afternoon briefing on the episode and the subsequent internal investigation at the Jessup facility, Sondervan said it appeared the grappling hooks were stolen from the ceiling, where they may have been holding pipes, and the "J" hooks came from washing machine parts, which were attached to shoelaces.

It remains unclear how the inmates got two types of rope, Sondervan said, and whether a partial hacksaw blade found in the grass was used by the inmates who cut through a recreation fence Wednesday morning. The nail clippers could also have been used to cut the fence, officials said.

A correction officer -- Renee Cherry -- said she noticed the inmates near the fence in the recreation yard, and saw two slip through the hole. She called for back-up, which arrived as the two were scurrying back under the fence.

"I just got a funny feeling something was going to happen," said Cherry, who was praised by officials Friday.

"The security worked well, and our employees did their jobs," said Sondervan, who was joined by a dozen officials and officers at the briefing. Those included the union president who has criticized the infrequency of intensive, institution-wide searches at the annex, which houses 1,200 of Maryland's most dangerous criminals.

The last institution-wide search was done in 1997, although Sondervan said a special operations unit does continual random searches of parts of the jail.

It appears the inmates planned to attach a rope to an unguarded watchtower and attempt to rappel over a series of electrical fences and razor wire, officials said. However, Sondervan said the watch-tower didn't need a guard because in addition to state-of-the-art fences, officers continually circle the perimeter of the complex.

After the briefing, Bernard Ralph Jr., president of the local AFSCME chapter representing correction officers, said he had concerns about staffing.

"You can have state of the art everything," he said. "But I don't think it beats having a human. Machines don't have instincts."

Neighbors and activists have been concerned that public safety is in jeopardy, especially since 37 positions have been cut since January.

Sondervan said the reductions had nothing to do with reducing overtime costs. "It was just an adjustment made because we have added security features."

As part of the investigation into the attempted escape, Sondervan said a security audit team will review annex policies to see if changes should be made. An internal investigation unit that has the power to file criminal charges is also looking at the incident to determine "what happened, how it happened, if the inmates had any help and if there are any bad policies."

Officials say it may be several weeks before criminal charges are lodged against any of the inmates, who also face administrative sanctions, such as loss of privileges. All have been moved to the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center, better known as Supermax, and one will be transferred to an out-of-state prison.

Sondervan declined to identify which of the inmates will be transferred out of Maryland. However, officials -- for the first time -- identified the five inmates who tried to escape.

In addition to Dean, they are: James Ross, 24, serving life for homicide and assaults; John Leonard-Bey, a 50-year-old serving life for homicide and weapons violations; Joseph Patrick, 31, serving 100 years for auto theft, kidnapping, and armed robbery; and James Prince, 46, serving life for homicide, burglaries and weapons violations.

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