Release the Iko tape

September 29, 2004

WHEN MARYLAND prison guards must forcibly remove an inmate from a cell, they are required to videotape the action. This is to document the "extraction" and determine if staffers followed procedure in restraining a prisoner. That's sound public policy because it protects the interests of the state and the rights of the imprisoned. When questions arise, the state has a ready -- and recorded -- response. For that reason, state prisons chief Mary Ann Saar's refusal to release such a videotape in the April death of inmate Ifeanyi A. Iko is unacceptable.

Her decision to withhold the tape until the conclusion of a pending federal civil rights investigation and all legal matters is a convenient excuse to delay answers to persistent questions in the case of Mr. Iko, a Nigerian immigrant and convicted drug dealer who was removed from his cell at the Western Correctional Institution April 30 and died hours later. The medical examiner ruled his death a homicide by asphyxiation.

An investigation into Mr. Iko's death by The Sun raised serious questions about the handling of this troubled and troublesome inmate, whom prison officials had referred for psychological evaluation. Ms. Saar's refusal to release the tape perpetuates the suspicion that the state is hiding something. Evidence that prison guards bombarded Mr. Iko with excessive amounts of pepper spray in violation of prison policies? That they mistreated the beefy inmate who had refused repeated requests to leave his cell? That they failed to medically monitor him?

That they could have prevented his death?

Releasing the videotape to a legislative panel inquiring about Mr. Iko's death would show the agency's commitment to a full, public accounting of the facts. Twice now, the guards' actions in the case have been vetted, first by internal investigators and then by an Allegany County grand jury. Neither review resulted in findings of criminal wrongdoing or policy violations. Clearly, there is no legal impediment to releasing a videotape -- Ms. Saar recently shared a tape of the forced removal of another inmate with legislators.

Ms. Saar didn't use Maryland's public records law to shield her then (the law's overly broad exemptions often enable officials to keep information from the public). But Ms. Saar did invoke that law in the spring to refuse The Sun's request to view the Iko tape and other records. Now she is citing the pending FBI investigation and a possible lawsuit from the Iko family. But the FBI isn't going to bring a civil rights case based solely on the tape. (Allegany County grand jurors noted that the prison system's videotaping techniques needed improvement.)

And if lawyers for the Iko family sue the state, they surely will be entitled to the tape. So, in the long run, Ms. Saar isn't protecting anyone by keeping that tape under wraps. If she worries that release of the tape would lead, in her words, to "conjecture," perhaps she should release the entire record in the case.

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