Inmate's final hours

Ifeanyi A. Iko died in custody, leaving questions about his treatment and suspicions of a cover-up.

Death In Western Maryland


Tucked away in a scenic mountain setting near Cumberland sits one of Marylands most modern prisons, staffed by correctional officers who have a reputation for a strict, no-nonsense approach to dealing with inmates.

But an inmates suspicious death at the Western Correctional Institution is raising troubling questions about practices there and whether the prisons staff violated regulations in a deliberate attempt to cover up what went wrong.

The inmate, Ifeanyi A. Iko, 51, got into a violent confrontation with correctional officers April 30. By the end of that day, he was dead. The state medical examiner determined that he died of asphyxiation and ruled his death a homicide.

State officials will say little about the events surrounding Iko's death because it is under investigation.

But accounts that The Sun has obtained from inmate witnesses, a review of hundreds of pages of correctional department policies, a tape of a 911 ambulance call and interviews with correctional experts and others paint a disturbing picture.

These accounts indicate that:

Prison staff sprayed three cans of pepper spray into Iko's cell to subdue him, even though training guidelines for officers indicate that one two-second burst is typically enough to handle an unruly inmate. Two cans can be used, if necessary, but a high-ranking prison official must approve the use of more spray.

After the pepper spray was used, prison staff at some point placed a mesh, hood-like mask over Iko's head to keep him from spitting at them, which may have further restricted his ability to breathe.

Prison policy requires that the staff should have washed Iko's face of the spray and given him fresh air and medical attention as quickly as possible after he was restrained. The regulations say further that a mask "shall be removed ... if any difficulty in breathing is observed." Inmate witnesses say that Iko appeared unconscious as officers moved him in a wheelchair from one building to another and that there was a mask covering his face.

Iko appeared to be dead when an ambulance removed him from the prison, inmate witnesses, a 911 tape and other research suggest, although he was handled as if he was alive. If Iko had been declared dead inside the prison, officials there would have been required to follow detailed procedures to secure the scene and preserve evidence.

Prison officials made feeble, unsuccessful attempts to notify Iko's family the day he died. Family members learned of Iko's death nearly two weeks later, in a call from a Sun reporter. There was confusion about what was happening with the body. They say they are angry and suspect a cover-up.

"We believe he was dead when he left that prison," said Gary C. Adler, a Washington attorney who is representing Iko's family. "From the information that we have now, it appears that numerous rules and procedures were not followed, both in the treatment of Ifeanyi and in the steps taken after his death."

If Iko had been dead before he was removed from the prison, officials should have restricted access to the area where he died, preserved all physical evidence and taken special steps to monitor who handled the evidence. Those steps are not required when an inmate dies outside a prison.

Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said the department's internal investigative unit was notified of Iko's death almost immediately, as is required in all inmate deaths.

He said the scene was secured for those investigators to examine. But he was unable to say whether the procedures spelled out for handling deaths that occur inside a prison were followed that day.

In their initial public statements about Iko's death, state officials said that he was found motionless in a cell and that prison staff made every effort to revive him.

"Part of the investigation will certainly include what happened in the moments after [cardio-pulmonary resuscitation] was administered," Vernarelli said.

Inquiry under way

For now, state officials will say almost nothing about what happened on the day Iko, a Nigerian immigrant, died.

"The facts will all come out in the investigation," promised Frank C. Sizer Jr., commissioner of the Maryland Division of Correction. "I have never operated to try to conceal things."

But while state officials aren't commenting, key details were pieced together from written accounts of inmate witnesses and from other sources familiar with the medium-security prison in Cresaptown.

Information provided by inmates was used only if it was given on the record and by more than one inmate, or was corroborated by other, independent sources.

The events leading to Iko's death began when Iko got into a fight with his cellmate in WCI's segregation unit, according to accounts of several inmate witnesses.

The segregation unit houses inmates who have been separated from the general inmate population for administrative, disciplinary or other reasons, and their privileges are severely restricted.

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