3 guards fired over death of inmate on bus

2 others are disciplined, prisons chief announces

Re-check of restraints ordered

New policies instituted to improve travel safety

February 24, 2005|By Greg Garland and Gus G. Sentementes | Greg Garland and Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

State prison officials fired three correctional officers yesterday and disciplined two others in response to the strangling death of a 20-year-old inmate on a prison bus in the pre-dawn hours of Feb. 2.

At a news conference last night at Division of Correction headquarters in Baltimore, Commissioner Frank C. Sizer Jr. also announced several changes in transportation procedures to prevent similar incidents.

The disciplinary actions are meant to send a strong message, Sizer said:

"I think what we're saying is that when we have employees that work for us, we expect certain performances from them. And when they don't comply or perform, there is a consequence."

The actions came amid increased scrutiny of the prison system, which has seen a rash of violence leading to lockdowns at two prisons this month.

Eastern Correctional Institution on the Eastern Shore was on lockdown yesterday - meaning prisoners are confined to their cells and are denied visitors and other privileges - as a result of weekend fights between gang factions that left two inmates seriously injured.

The Maryland House of Correction Annex has been on lockdown since Feb. 7 after four stabbings on consecutive days and fatal stabbings in December and January by inmates using homemade weapons.

While prison officials won't discuss details of what went wrong on the bus, Sizer announced a new policy that includes making the officer in charge of a bus crew responsible for "re-checking the restraints of every inmate as they board the bus/van to ensure they are properly applied." There also is a new requirement that interior lights be turned on when bus headlights are on.

Improperly applied restraints and broken interior lights are believed to have been factors in the strangling death of Philip E. Parker Jr.

Parker was among 35 inmates on the prison bus from Hagerstown to the Supermax prison in Baltimore. They included a twice-convicted murderer - Kevin G. Johns Jr., 22 - who had told a judge he day before that he was likely to kill again if he didn't get psychiatric help.

Johns is a suspect in Parker's killing, according to law enforcement and other sources.

An inmate witness, in written accounts to relatives, described in detail how Parker's attacker managed to loosen his waist chain enough to loop it around Parker's neck while another inmate pinned Parker to his seat.

Parker was killed within 10 feet of where two officers were seated in a protective cage at the rear of the bus, but his body was not discovered until the bus got to Baltimore about 4 a.m.

Sizer said the two officers who were at the back of the bus were fired. Of the three in front, including the driver, one was fired, another was given a five-day suspension and one received a written reprimand, he said.

Sizer declined to comment on what specific policies the officers violated. But regulations require officers to be alert and attentive while at their posts.

Melissa Rodriguez, Parker's mother, said last night that she was not satisfied with the DOC's decision and thought the officers should face a criminal investigation.

"I'm glad they're fired and they're not going to be responsible for anyone else's life," Rodriguez said. "But that's not enough for me. I need to know why they didn't do enough to protect my child. ... No one [from the state] is talking to me. Why am I the last one to know anything? It doesn't get easier, it gets worse. I'm very upset, I'm very upset."

Johns was seated in the rear of the bus with Parker, even though prison policies say that inmates who are identified as "security alerts or who require special handling" are to be "seated in the front compartment of the transport vehicle."

The front section of the bus has cages that can be used to isolate dangerous prisoners.

One of the fired officers has told union officials that officers on the bus were never informed of threats Johns made in court and would have separated him if they had known.

Johns originally was sent to prison for choking an uncle with a belt, trying to saw his head off and leaving him in a closet to die. In prison, he strangled his 16-year-old cellmate.

At his sentencing hearing the day before Parker was killed, Johns got life without parole for killing his cellmate. Parker had been called to testify that Johns was unstable and needed psychiatric treatment.

A correctional officer on the bus has told union officials that he noticed Johns moving about at one point, shined a flashlight on him and saw blood on him but was unable to see clearly whether anything was seriously wrong because the interior bus lights were broken.

Sizer confirmed yesterday that some of the interior lights on the bus were broken.

Ron Bailey, executive director of AFSCME Council 92, which represents correctional officers, said he plans to contact the officers to learn more about what happened: "We will be filing appeals for those who want to appeal the disciplinary actions."

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