Lawmakers hear of changes in state's prison procedures

But officials won't talk about death of inmate

September 16, 2004|By Greg Garland and Gus G. Sentementes | Greg Garland and Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

State prison officials assured a legislative panel yesterday that they have made significant changes to "use of force" policies - including restrictions on the use of pepper spray - since the death of a prison inmate in Western Maryland on April 30.

But the officials refused to answer any specific questions about their handling of Ifeanyi A. Iko's death or to show legislators videotapes of Iko's forcible removal from his cell at Western Correctional Institution in Cresaptown on the day he died.

Instead, prison officials answered general questions about policies for handling inmates and showed members of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee a videotape of officers restraining another inmate outside his cell two days before Iko's death - an incident in which the inmate has claimed in letters to The Sun that officers choked him.

Mary Ann Saar, secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, pointed to a recently launched FBI investigation as the reason for declining to discuss details of Iko's case.

"It's my decision that we are not going to discuss Iko until all the legal reviews are completed," Saar told Sen. Brian E. Frosh, who chairs the committee.

Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, expressed frustration with Saar's decision - noting that the attorney general's office had advised him that prison officials could discuss Iko's case.

"How is it going to sully the [FBI] investigation if you show us the videotape?" Frosh asked. "It is what it is; it's not going to change."

Iko, 51, a Nigerian immigrant, died after a violent confrontation with correctional officers - a death later ruled by the state medical examiner's office a homicide by asphyxiation. He had originally been sent to prison to serve a three-year sentence for a drug charge but received an additional 20 years for assaulting a correctional officer in 1992 in an Eastern Shore prison.

The autopsy report said his death was caused by "chemical irritation of the airways by pepper spray," the placement of a mesh mask over Iko's face to prevent spitting or biting, and the way he was restrained.

In an internal investigation, Maryland's public safety and correctional department found no wrongdoing by prison staff. An Allegany County grand jury reached the same conclusion in July after a two-day investigation.

Dr. Benny Iko, a brother of Iko's who attended yesterday's hearing with his attorney, said afterward that it was "incomprehensible" that prison officials wouldn't show videotape of his brother's last day at WCI. "Nothing will change the facts," he said.

Correctional officials faced aggressive questioning by several legislators on policies for handling inmates. They also were questioned about the racial imbalance at the Cresaptown prison, where officials said the staff is 96 percent white and the inmate population 76 percent black.

Del. Shirley Nathan-Pulliam, a Baltimore Democrat who sat in on the Senate hearing, described Western Correctional Institution as "a racist environment" based on what she has learned from talking to inmates and their family members.

"It's just not a good situation at all," she said

Because prison officials would not answer specific questions about Iko's case, several senators posed hypothetical questions that mirrored some of the facts that have come to light in the inmate's death.

Many of the facts initially surfaced in letters inmates sent to The Sun. They were later supported by findings in an autopsy report and by information obtained from other sources.

For example, inmates wrote that Iko's cell was sprayed with three cans of pepper spray - far more than prison guidelines call for - and that he was removed from the cell block unconscious, in a wheelchair, with a mask over his face.

At the hearing, Del. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat, asked Correction Commissioner Frank C. Sizer Jr. whether his department had developed policies on the use of chemical agents in combination with a spit mask.

Brochin expressed surprise when Sizer said they had not.

However, Sizer said, prison administrators have drafted new policies on the use of pepper spray - a change contemplated before Iko's death.

Sizer said that correctional officers now need approval of top-level prison officials before using pepper spray in certain cases involving a "calculated use of force" - such as the forced removal of an uncooperative inmate from a cell. He also said no more than two bursts of two seconds each of pepper spray can be used to subdue an inmate.

The effects of pepper spray were evident in the videotape shown of a WCI inmate being restrained outside his cell on April 28, two days before Iko's death. It occurred in the same housing unit where Iko was held.

Inmates had been protesting over claims of poor food and other issues, according to inmate accounts and the division's official report of the incident.

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