Federal authorities, who launched an investigation last month into the death of an inmate at Western Correctional Institution, were already looking into broader allegations of prisoner abuse at the rural Maryland prison, according to records relating to alleged incidents.
The broader inquiry by the U.S. Justice Department focuses on charges that a small group of correctional officers arranged inmate-on-inmate assaults and other types of retaliation against prisoners who wrote complaints or filed lawsuits about their treatment.
Records show that the officers involved were assigned to the Cresaptown prison's segregation unit, the same section of the facility that had housed Ifeanyi A. Iko, whose death April 30 was ruled a homicide by the state medical examiner's office and is being investigated by the FBI.
"The Justice Department does have an investigation under way concerning the Western Correctional Institution," said Eric Holland, a spokesman for the federal agency's civil rights division. "Because it's an ongoing investigation, I cannot comment further."
The department's inquiry into complaints lodged by WCI inmates casts yet another spotlight on conditions at the modern, medium-security facility near Cumberland in Allegany County.
In dozens of letters to The Sun since May, inmates there described rising tensions between them and officers in the segregation unit in the weeks and months before Iko's death. Two days before he died after a violent clash with officers, more than two dozen inmates embarked on a daylong protest in the unit over complaints of lousy food and unfair or abusive treatment from officers.
While federal authorities wouldn't discuss the inmates' complaints, civil lawsuits filed in federal court by three inmates before Iko's death allege a pattern of abuse dating back to 2001 - allegations that the officers and state prison administrators strongly deny.
Among claims spelled out in hundreds of pages of court documents:
An officer allegedly encouraged an inmate to beat up another inmate and stood by for several minutes during the assault in which the handcuffed inmate's head was slammed against the wall of his cell.
A black inmate who was put in a cell with a white supremacist claimed the other inmate beat him over a period of several days, and prison officials ignored his complaints.
The black inmate, 53, complained in a letter to WCI Warden Jon P. Galley: "I am no longer 25 years old and my fighting ability is non-existing. My left leg does not work and my back is hurting from being attack" by younger inmates.
Officers allegedly ganged up on inmates to assault or threaten them for making complaints against officers or for signing statements backing the accounts of other inmates involved in disputes with officers.
To entice inmates to assault certain prisoners whom they disliked, officers allegedly promised them more favorable treatment - such as protection from prison gangs or restoring access to telephones and other privileges. They threatened others, who refused to cooperate, with being exposed as "snitches" or being sent back to prisons where they had enemies they feared would harm them.
Maryland Assistant Attorney General David Kennedy, who represents officers named in the suits, said the claims are untrue. He said that inmates are notorious for concocting stories to cause trouble for prison staff. He noted that the inmates who are alleging wrongdoing by officers were serving time for serious crimes, such as armed robbery, drug dealing and similar felonies.
The fact that three lawsuits by different inmates make similar allegations does not make it more likely that their claims are true, he said. "It could mean a group of inmates doesn't like some particular group of officers, and the only way they see to get back is to make these complaints against these officers," he said.
The three inmates who filed the suits were held in the protective custody wing of WCI's segregation housing unit, which is the part of the prison where inmates are kept separate from the general population in an environment tightly controlled by officers.
Most inmates held in protective custody are usually either "snitches" - inmates who made enemies by informing prison authorities of the activities of other inmates - or former law enforcement officers who needed to be kept apart from the general population for their own protection.
Correctional experts say that inmates who need to be segregated are usually among the most troublesome or dangerous inmates in an institution.
In the case of Iko, the 51-year-old Nigerian immigrant who went to prison on a drug distribution charge and got an increased sentence after attacking a correctional officer at an Eastern Shore prison in 1992.
An internal investigation into his death by the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services found no wrongdoing by WCI officers, and a two-day inquiry by an Allegany County grand jury reached the same conclusion.