Pepper spray rules tighten

Md. prison chief restricts OK to warden, assistant

Affects use in segregation units

Officials say inmate death did not spur the change

July 21, 2004|By Gus G. Sentementes and Greg Garland | Gus G. Sentementes and Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

Two months after a Western Maryland inmate died after being subdued with three cans of pepper spray, the state prison commissioner has toughened guidelines for its use, according to an internal memo.

Only a warden or assistant warden can authorize using chemical agents on inmates held in segregation units, wrote Frank C. Sizer Jr., commissioner of the Division of Correction. Previously, a senior correctional supervisor could approve its use, according to the division's regulations.

"If chemical agents are used at any time, staff shall prepare a thorough report within 24 hours of the incident," Sizer wrote in the July 8 memo to wardens, which made no mention of the death of inmate Ifeanyi A. Iko, who was held in a segregation unit.

Division of Correction spokeswoman Priscilla Doggett said the commissioner's memo was not in response to Iko's death.

Iko, an inmate at Western Correctional Institution near Cumberland, died of asphyxiation April 30, and his death has been ruled a homicide. A grand jury is expected to convene by the end of the month to determine whether criminal charges should be brought.

Doggett said the new guidelines are the result of an "ongoing review and assessment" of policies that Sizer ordered when he was confirmed as commissioner earlier this year. She characterized the memo as essentially offering temporary rules on the use of pepper spray until new policies are officially enacted.

The policy update has caused some confusion among correctional officers, according to a union that represents them.

"Correctional officers are reporting to us varying interpretations of what this policy means, and that's putting everyone's safety at risk," said Joe Lawrence, a spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. "This memo has caused great uncertainty out there about the use of force and when chemical agents in particular are to be used."

The revised guidelines come at a time when the Division of Correction has been roiled by the continuing investigation into Iko's death. Inmate witnesses have said that a lieutenant, who was leading a team of officers to "extract" Iko from his cell, sprayed three cans of pepper spray into his cell. Officers also placed a mesh "spit mask" on his face to prevent him from spitting or biting, according to inmate accounts.

State officials have refused to comment publicly or provide details on the death, citing the inquiry and impending grand jury investigation.

But in a July 14 internal memo to correctional staff at Western Correctional Institution, the secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services expressed her belief that the grand jury investigation would ultimately exonerate the prison staff from criminal wrongdoing.

"It is my hope that the matter does go to the Grand Jury because I believe that the finding will be that there was no there was no criminal intent connected to this death. Taking it to the Grand Jury would ensure an impartial, objective examination of the facts in this matter," Secretary Mary Ann Saar, a former prosecutor, said in the brief memo.

"Whenever an incident of this nature occurs, we are committed to reexamining our policies and procedures to determine whether there is any room for improvement," she said.

Mark Vernarelli, a department spokesman, said Saar issued the statement to make WCI staff aware of her thoughts on the Iko case.

"She knows how hard the correctional staff at WCI and all the prisons work on a daily basis and she understands their frustration when their actions are called into question," Vernarelli said.

Asked about Saar's prediction that a grand jury will find no criminal wrongdoing, he responded: "That's her opinion, and she thought it was important to tell her staff that."

The spokesman said the statement should have gone out via e-mail to WCI staffers, been posted on bulletin boards at the prison and read during roll calls as correctional officers started their shifts.

Saar's statement was issued on the same day The Sun reported that Allegany County State's Attorney Michael O. Twigg's office decided to convene the grand jury.

Twigg has declined to comment, but other sources confirmed that a grand jury plans to meet at the prison before the end of the month to hear from inmate witnesses and prison staff.

Some legal experts are skeptical of prosecutors' use of grand juries to investigate allegations of misconduct on the part of correctional officers and other law enforcement employees, mainly because jurors can be steered toward a predetermined outcome.

Douglas L. Colbert, a University of Maryland law professor, said that allegations of misconduct presented to grand juries don't often end in indictments. "Because the grand jury is a secret closed proceeding, the public has no way of judging whether or not the action was correct," he said.

Reached by phone, Twigg declined to comment yesterday on the criticisms of using a grand jury.

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