Inmate death inquiry widens

Allegany prosecutor and state police join corrections investigation

Guards found man in his cell

Relatives reiterate belief that foul play led to death of immigrant April 30

May 27, 2004|By Gus G. Sentementes and Greg Garland | Gus G. Sentementes and Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

Maryland prison authorities broadened their inquiry yesterday into the death last month of a 51-year-old inmate at the Western Correctional Institution in Allegany County, as relatives reiterated their belief that foul play led to his death.

Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said the Maryland State Police and investigators with the county state's attorney's office joined the department's internal detectives and the state medical examiner's office in the investigation.

The department confirmed this month that corrections officers found Ifeanyi A. Iko, a Nigerian immigrant, motionless in his cell at 4:30 p.m. April 30. Paramedics were called to take him to Sacred Heart Hospital in Cumberland, where he died at 5:10 p.m.

Iko had been kept apart from the general prison population for undisclosed reasons, in a "special housing unit" where he was checked every 15 minutes by a corrections officer or medical personnel, Vernarelli said.

A spokeswoman for the medical examiner's office in Baltimore said autopsy results are pending.

Vernarelli said that disciplinary action has not been taken against any inmates or officers in connection with the probe. He characterized the participation of the state police and the county state's attorney's office as a "matter of policy and procedure."

"We always turn over everything when there is a death," he said. He declined to release additional details of the investigation.

Iko had been sent to prison in 1991 to serve a three-year sentence for drug distribution in Prince George's County, court records show. In 1992, he stabbed and bit a correctional officer while at the Eastern Correctional Institution and eventually received an additional 20-year sentence, court records show.

Iko's death shocked and outraged his family, Nigerian immigrants who live mainly in Maryland and Northern Virginia, partly because they say they were not notified by the prison. But prison officials say they made several unsuccessful attempts to notify relatives. Iko's relatives said they learned of Iko's death nearly two weeks after he died when a Sun reporter contacted family members.

Abuse complaints

Benny O. Iko, a radiologist who practices in suburban Washington, said he has little confidence that Maryland authorities will conduct a thorough investigation. He said his brother complained in several letters to him about abuse at the hands of prison guards.

"I have several letters that he has written in which he talked about being beaten and attempts to suffocate him," said Benny Iko. He said he is turning those letters over to Bruce L. Marcus, an attorney for the family.

He said his first contact with Western Correctional Institution officials about his brother's death was in a letter dated Tuesday. "They said, `We're sorry about your brother' and to come and collect his things," Iko said.

Marcus, the family attorney, said he has received an outpouring of information from inmates about Iko's death.

"Based on the information that we were provided, there are a great many questions which will have to be answered," Marcus said. "The information that we have received is suggestive of suspicious circumstances surrounding this death."

In seven letters postmarked from the prison, including six to The Sun and one to an inmate's family signed by 12 inmates, similar accounts were given of Iko's last day in the prison.

Inmate accounts

They claim that Iko was severely beaten, sprayed with Mace and tied up by correctional officers, who took him from his cell in the segregation unit - where prisoners are separated from the general prison population for disciplinary, administrative or other reasons. The officers then moved him to the "special housing" area of the prison, where he was eventually found motionless.

The special housing area consists of 10 holding cells, a lab office and other staff offices.

The Sun provided prison officials with a summary of the inmates' account. Vernarelli, the prison spokesman, said in an e-mail response that "frequently inmate allegations are found to be inaccurate and inflammatory."

Iko was born and raised in Nigeria and, at 28, immigrated to the United States in 1981. He lived with a brother and others in Hyattsville, worked various service jobs and attended Southeastern University in Washington, though he never graduated, relatives said.

While at Southeastern, he met Loreen Jones, whom he married. They had two children but divorced in the late 1990s while Iko was still in prison, Jones has said in a previous interview.

Criminal past

According to court records, Iko's first brush with the law came in December 1982, when he was arrested for trying to pass a counterfeit $100 bill to pay for some groceries at a Safeway store in Hyattsville. He received 18 months' probation.

Since Iko's incarceration on a drug charge, he had been transferred in and out of several institutions around the state, including Eastern Correctional, Patuxent Institution in Jessup, Maryland Correctional Institution in Hagerstown and Western Correctional in Cresaptown.

His time in prison has been troubled. He received an added 20-year sentence for stabbing a correctional officer at an Eastern Shore prison with a "shank" or homemade knife - in self-defense, his family members say.

That corrections officer was later fired for his role in the abuse of another inmate, according to court records.

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