Stabbings prompt lockdown at Jessup

Correctional officers say authorities hide problems

February 16, 2005|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

Four stabbings in four consecutive days this month and another, fatal stabbing in January have led correctional officials to order an extended lockdown at the Maryland House of Corrections Annex in Jessup as they conduct an extensive cell-by-cell search for weapons.

Warden James V. Peguese said the lockdown that began Feb. 7, after the most recent assault, restricts the prison's 1,210 inmates to their cells, denies them recreation and work privileges and bars visitors.

The order will not be lifted until authorities believe it is safe to resume normal operations, he said: "It's difficult for me to say when that will be."

Together with the strangling of an inmate on a prison bus Feb. 2 and the surfacing of internal department reports that detail assaults on correctional officers, the latest incidents are raising questions about the safety and security of Maryland's prisons.

The prison lockdown and the stabbings that prompted it came to light after inmates, their relatives and correctional officers wrote letters and e-mails to The Sun to report problems that they said they believed authorities were trying to hide.

Union officials say inadequate staffing has made the state's prisons more dangerous for staff and inmates. Prison administrators disagree, saying their reports show that the number of inmate assaults is declining.

However, some mid-level officers appear to share the union's view, according to an internal document obtained by The Sun.

In a Feb. 1 memo to Peguese and several other ranking officers, Capt. Louis Guy described how staffing problems in the Annex segregation unit are affecting daily activities and creating dangerous conditions. The segregation unit is where inmates are housed for disciplinary or administrative reasons.

"The inmates that are housed in our segregation unit ... have a high history of violence," Guy wrote. "From January 20, 2005 to January 31, 2005, there have been six serious incident reports where officers have been assaulted by inmates."

He said officers are so overwhelmed that on many days they can't take a lunch break, and the shortages prevent or delay the staff from providing services to inmates, including haircuts, showers, laundry and library privileges.

Peguese said he saw the memo for the first time Monday and has not had time to carefully review it. But he said he disagrees that staffing levels are creating unsafe conditions.

He said there have been violent assaults in prisons for years and figures show they are declining, not increasing.

Peguese said inmates are creative in fashioning homemade knives, or shanks.

Turkey bones, light fixtures, ink pens, spoon handles and "anything they can pry off" have been sharpened into knives that are hidden around the prison, he said. Seven homemade weapons were found stashed in cells or common areas of the Annex as of last Friday, he said.

Internal investigators are trying to determine whether the four stabbings this month are linked. He said that the four inmates were treated for their injuries and returned to the prison.

The victim of the fatal stabbing at the Annex Jan. 12 was Brian Wilson, 21, who was serving four years on drug and assault charges, officials said.

Priscilla Doggett, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Division of Corrections, said that Wilson was stabbed by a 35-year-old prisoner serving time for armed robbery, assault and rape.

She and Peguese said they could not provide any further details because the killing is still under investigation.

The brazenness of the recent attacks has shaken some long-time correctional officers and their families.

The wife of one officer who has been with the correctional system for 10 years said the situation is the worst she has ever seen and that her husband and many of his co-workers fear for their safety.

She spoke on condition of anonymity, saying she did not want to jeopardize his job.

Union officials say staffing cuts have left correctional officers and inmates more vulnerable to assaults.

Janet Anderson, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Classified Employees Association, said employees throughout the prison system are concerned.

"A lot of experienced officers have left because they feel their life is in danger," Anderson said.

Ron Bailey, executive director of AFSCME Council 62, said inmates take advantage of opportunities that arise when no one is watching -- and that happens more often when there isn't sufficient staff to monitor them.

"I think it's clearly a staffing issue," he said.

But Peguese said staffing is adequate if "everyone is doing what needs to be done at the time." He said assaults can occur in prison regardless of the number of staff on hand.

Correction division reports show there were 1,540 inmate-on-inmate assaults throughout Maryland's prison system in 2001; 1,511 in 2002; 1,438 in 2003 and 1,295 last year.

But union officials say they suspect that not all incidents are being reported to administrative staff. Bailey said officers have told him they are being told not to report some incidents as violent assaults.

"If you want to control data, that's how to do it," Bailey said.

Prison administrators say the reporting standards have been the same for several years and deny any effort to understate the number of assaults that occur in Maryland prisons.

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