Prison officers deny abuse of Md. inmate

October 20, 2004|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

Attorneys bluntly questioned eight correctional officers at the center of abuse complaints in federal court yesterday, and each officer denied the claims, including one alleged encounter where officers leaned him over a railing and squeezed him between a door and the wall.

"The incident did not occur," said Lt. Tom Riggleman, when asked by his lawyer, Assistant Attorney General David P. Kennedy, about the alleged incident on Oct. 3, 2002. He said if it had occurred, it would have been his duty to file a report.

The officers - who work or are retired from Western Correctional Institution near Cumberland - presented a unified defense of the allegations contained in a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by Norman R. Willis. Several said they could not recall dates where they had allegedly had an encounter with Willis, or remembered event differently, and denied that they assaulted or threatened him.

Willis' allegations of abuse are part of a U.S. Justice Department investigation into inmate treatment at the prison that began before April 30, when an inmate died after a violent confrontation with officers.

Among the officers who testified during the second day of trial, one officer - David Swanger - admitted to jurors that he wore a custom-made T-shirt that read: "Housing Unit Four ... House of Pain."

Swanger, who denied assaulting Willis, said he didn't know whether other officers wore the same T-shirt, but he told jurors, "We were required to wear blue T-shirts, and that's the one I bought."

Willis was held in the protective custody wing of Housing Unit Four because of threats made against his life at another Maryland prison, he said. Housing Unit Four is where inmates are kept from the prison's general population for disciplinary, administrative or safety reasons.

It is the same unit that held Ifeanyi A. Iko, who died in April after a violent encounter with officers. His death was ruled a homicide by asphyxiation. A grand jury review and an internal investigation did not lead to charges against the officers. The FBI is investigating his death.

In arguments before U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett, Kennedy succeeded in getting several claims and two officers - Lt. James Shreve and Officer Floyd Farris - dismissed from the lawsuit because of a lack of evidence.

Earlier in the day, two witnesses testified in support of some of Willis' claims. One witness, inmate Michael J. Graham, said he heard Riggleman yell an obscenity at Willis and tell him to be quiet as he complained about being assaulted by officers in Riggleman's presence.

Another witness, Faouly A. Umoja, a former inmate now on parole, testified that he heard Officer Leah Youngblood call Willis a "snitch" on the unit's intercom - an alleged act that would have put Willis' safety in jeopardy among other inmates, Willis has said.

A third inmate refused to testify at the last minute for undisclosed reasons.

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