Prison officials consider cameras

Surveillance system for buses debated after inmate's unnoticed death

February 08, 2005|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

Maryland correctional officials said yesterday they are considering equipping prison buses with video surveillance cameras after an inmate's death last week.

"We're looking to have some kind of camera system on the buses," said Priscilla Doggett, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Division of Corrections. "It's something we're seriously exploring."

She said Commissioner Frank C. Sizer Jr. directed his staff to contact other states to find out how many use cameras on prison buses, the types of systems that are available and the costs.

The move comes after the death of Philip E. Parker Jr., 20. He was killed by another inmate on a trip from a court appearance in Hagerstown to the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center, known as Supermax, in Baltimore. He was buried yesterday.

Although five correctional staff were aboard -- the driver and four officers -- Parker's killing went undetected until the bus arrived in Baltimore at 4:03 a.m.

A camera might have captured what happened.

Corrections officials in Pennsylvania and Virginia said they don't put cameras on their prison buses and don't see a need for them.

"We have officers both in front and in back of the bus and that's their job -- to monitor inmates to see if anything is going on," said Susan McNaughton, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.

Larry Traylor of Virginia's Department of Corrections said that security is adequate without cameras and that it might be "cost prohibitive" to install them.

A spokesman for the American Correctional Association said he is not aware of any research on the use of surveillance cameras on buses that transport prisoners.

Adding cameras is among several policy changes under review in the aftermath of Parker's death.

Parker's funeral was attended yesterday by many friends and family members.

Michael A. Mastracci, attorney for the Parker family, said that Parker's father and mother are distressed at the lack of information they have received from authorities about their son's death.

Mastracci said the family has asked him to seek a meeting with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. or one of his top officials to discuss what happened to their son.

"Whatever they can be told, they want to know," Mastracci said. "Clearly, something can be told rather than just saying it's under investigation."

A law enforcement source has told The Sun that one suspect in Parker's death is Kevin J. Johns Jr., a 22-year-old convicted killer who was given a life sentence last week for strangling a cellmate.

Prison officials have said publicly that one or more of the 35 inmates riding the bus that night killed Parker.

Parker had testified for the defense at Johns' sentencing hearing. Lawyers for Johns unsuccessfully argued that he should be sent to the Patuxent Institution, a facility for inmates with severe mental illness.

Johns told the judge he needed psychiatric treatment and would likely kill again if he did not get it.

State corrections officials, pointing to the investigation into Parker's death, have not confirmed that Johns was on the bus and will not say whether he is considered a suspect.

The buses have "segregation cages" for especially dangerous inmates, but Johns, despite the threats he made in court to kill again, apparently was not separated from the other inmates for the bus trip.

Parker had been serving a three-year sentence for unarmed robbery, while Johns was originally sentenced to prison for killing his uncle.

Prosecutors said Johns tried to strangle his uncle with a belt and then, after finding him still breathing, tried to cut off his head with a rusty saw and a box cutter before stuffing him into a closet and leaving him to die.

Later, at a prison in Hagerstown, Johns strangled his 16-year-old cellmate.

Prison officials won't say why Parker was in Supermax, despite a crime that carried only a three-year sentence.

Doggett said prisoners can be sent to Supermax if they are considered an escape risk, have a history of violence in correctional facilities or violate certain institutional rules.

The five correctional staff who were on the bus when Parker was killed were placed on administrative leave after the incident.

Former inmates say that guards often slept on the bus trips and that loud music played on the buses might have kept them from hearing any disturbance.

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