Former inmates describe bus, cage

Md. officials won't give location of key prisoner during fatal trip to city

February 05, 2005|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

The type of prison bus in which a Maryland inmate was killed this week had two "segregation cages" set aside for especially dangerous prisoners, according to former inmates who have ridden on the buses.

But state correctional authorities would not say yesterday whether a mentally disturbed inmate who had been convicted of killing a cellmate was separated from other prisoners during a trip from Hagerstown to Baltimore.

The inmate, Kevin G. Johns Jr., had told a judge during his sentencing Tuesday that he probably would kill again if he wasn't given intensive psychiatric care.

A source close to the investigation said that Johns was on the same bus as the inmate who was killed, Philip E. Parker Jr., when the bus arrived at the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center in Baltimore, known as Supermax, at 4:03 a.m. Wednesday.

Parker's parents said that a prison chaplain informed them that their son had been strangled by another inmate, who was later found with blood on his wrists.

Parker, 20, who was serving a three-year sentence for unarmed robbery, had testified for the defense Tuesday as lawyers for Johns sought to have him sent to the Patuxent Institution, a facility for seriously mentally ill inmates.

Priscilla Doggett, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Division of Correction, would not say yesterday where Johns was seated during the trip, whether he was a suspect in Parker's death or whether he was on the bus.

"The names of inmates being transported by the transportation unit is considered security information and cannot be disclosed by the Division of Correction," she said.

Doggett also said that she did not know when an arrest might be made or when the investigation, being conducted by the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services internal affairs unit, might be completed.

"Investigations take a while," she said.

Three former Maryland inmates who have frequently ridden on prison buses each gave similar descriptions yesterday of how the vehicles are configured.

The inmates said that there is an individual cage right behind the driver and another across the aisle. Behind them is a caged section for two correctional officers. Then comes the biggest portion of the bus, also separated by security grills, where most inmates are seated. Finally, another caged portion at the rear holds two more correctional officers.

Corrections officials have said there were five staff members on the bus when Parker was killed but that no one noticed anything amiss until he was found dead when the bus stopped in Baltimore. The five staff members have been placed on leave.

The former inmates said that correctional officers often slept through the trips.

"That's what they do: They sleep on the way up and sleep on the way back," said Norman D. Chester Jr., 33, who served a six-year sentence for robbery and is now living in another state.

He said that he rode on the buses dozens of times from prisons in Western Maryland to court appearances in Baltimore and that often the only person awake was the driver.

Craig Davidson, 40, who spent three years in prison on a drug charge and is now a carpenter in Harford County, said his experience riding prison buses was similar.

Doggett would not comment on claims that sleeping on the buses is common, but said officers are prohibited "from being inattentive" while on duty.

Chester and Davidson said they could not understand how Parker could have been strangled by another prisoner on the bus because of the way inmates are restrained for trips.

"You have what's called a three-piece restraint. I don't see how it could be done," Chester said.

The three-piece restraint includes leg irons, handcuffs and a waist chain that hooks to the handcuffs, he said. A metal device that fits over the handcuffs locks the hands in place and further restricts movement, he said.

Davidson said a prisoner in restraints can't lift his arms over his head or scratch his nose. "There's no way that [strangling] could have happened with that lockbox on," he said.

But another former inmate from Glen Burnie, who asked not to be identified, said he believed it was possible for a determined prisoner in restraints to strangle someone.

All three former inmates said correctional officers might not have noticed a struggle because of loud music regularly played on the buses during the trips.

Chester said other inmates who might have seen what happened probably would be reluctant to tell investigators what they knew for fear of retaliation.

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