Unanswered questions

August 05, 2004

IT'S SAFE TO say that Ifeanyi A. Iko was a troubled inmate. A convicted drug dealer, Mr. Iko was serving an additional 20 years for assaulting a correctional officer. At the Western Correctional Institution, Mr. Iko was housed in a special segregation unit. He fought with his cellmate and was removed to an isolation cell. On the day he died, Mr. Iko refused to cooperate with prison officials who wanted to move him to a special area for psychological observation.

That refusal led to a string of events that has raised serious questions about the circumstances of the Nigerian immigrant's death in April, the actions of state prison guards, and department policy on investigating inmate deaths. An Allegany County grand jury has cleared prison staff of wrongdoing in Mr. Iko's death, which was ruled a homicide by asphyxiation. But the matter shouldn't end there.

Sun reporters Greg Garland and Gus G. Sentementes, who wrote several articles about Mr. Iko's death, found that prison guards forcibly removed Mr. Iko from his cell when he refused to cooperate. The guards used an amount of pepper spray to facilitate the move that exceeded corrections policy, and they placed a special mesh mask over Mr. Iko's face to prevent him from spitting and biting.

Although the grand jury didn't bring indictments in Mr. Iko's death, the panel's recommendations suggest things did not go right that day. The grand jury viewed a videotape of guards removing Mr. Iko from his cell. But its recommendation that the division improve its video techniques raises questions about the quality of the tape.

The grand jury didn't interview inmate witnesses, but relied on statements taken by internal investigators. Prisoners who contacted The Sun expressed concern about talking to internal investigators. That raises questions about the quality of their statements, on which the grand jury relied. Would inmate witnesses have felt more comfortable talking with state police who work outside the prison system?

That is a question legislators should take up when the state Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee holds a hearing on Mr. Iko's death this fall.

When a death occurs in the closed confines of a prison, investigators must be free to explore the unique conditions of that culture and not be held captive to it. Can investigators who report to the secretary of public safety and correctional services be that independent?

Ifeanyi Iko was hardly a model prisoner, but the nagging questions about how he died should not go unanswered.

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