Attack at prison fuels debate on staff cuts

Inmate tried to sexually assault guard at Roxbury

July 15, 2005|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

The attempted sexual assault of a female correctional officer at Roxbury Correctional Institution in Hagerstown last week has intensified tensions between officers in Western Maryland and state prison administrators over staff cutbacks at the facility.

"Morale among officers is at an all-time low," said Del. John P. Donoghue, a Hagerstown Democrat who has represented the area for 16 years. "This latest incident is a shining example of why the [staff] cuts are so wrong."

Officers and former wardens from the Hagerstown region have complained publicly in recent weeks that staff cuts are jeopardizing their safety. They point to the attempted sexual assault at Roxbury as an example.

Frank C. Sizer Jr., who heads the Maryland Division of Correction, said that staffing levels had nothing to do with the incident.

"Staff safety is our No. 1 priority," Sizer said. "It's unfortunate that in this environment we have bad people and they sometimes do bad things." According to an internal report obtained by The Sun, the officer was locking classrooms in the education building at RCI shortly after 8 p.m. July 7 when an inmate sanitation worker ran up behind her, threw her to the ground and tried to force himself on her.

Officials with the Maryland Classified Employees Association, a labor group that represents officers in Hagerstown, said the attack occurred in an area that normally is staffed by two people but said there was only the one officer on duty in the building that day.

As a result, no one was nearby to see or hear what was happening and respond, said John R. Reamy, president of the MCEA chapter that represents correctional officers at RCI.

"It played a major role," Reamy said, referring to staffing levels. "The inmate and the female officer were in a completely unobservable area."

He said there is a camera trained on the area where the attack occurred but no one was stationed at the monitor inside the education building to see what was happening.

"Most likely it would not have happened or could have been stopped a lot sooner" if both officers had been present, Reamy said.

Priscilla Doggett, a spokeswoman for the Division of Correction, said the second officer was reassigned to help work the yard area of the prison July 7 because programs that had been scheduled for inmates in the education building that evening were canceled.

The lone officer in the building allowed the 31-year-old inmate to come in from the yard to use the restroom, Doggett said.

The incident report quotes the officer as saying she gave the inmate permission to use the restroom and went back to locking classroom doors. The inmate ran up, grabbed her around the neck, threw her to the ground and climbed on top of her, the officer reported.

She said she kicked and screamed until the inmate ran off and then used her radio to call for help.

The inmate, who is in prison for the 1990 murder of a 13-year-old girl, was transferred from Hagerstown to the Supermax prison in Baltimore after the incident, according to state correctional officials.

Sizer and Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services Secretary Mary Ann Saar paid separate visits to RCI this week to gather information about the attempted assault.

Doggett said it is not unusual for top corrections administrators to visit prisons after an assault on an officer so they can get a first-hand assessment of what happened.

Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr., a Republican whose district includes parts of Allegany and Washington counties, said he met with Saar on Wednesday to discuss complaints made by correctional officers about unsafe conditions in the state's prisons.

"Something's wrong," Myers said. "Am I saying it's completely broke? No. I think [Gov. Robert L.] Ehrlich and this administration inherited a mess."

He said he thinks reforms Saar is trying to implement, while also dealing with budget constraints, are well intended. But he said he thinks staff cuts have gone too far.

Myers said he is hopeful that a staffing analysis under way will help to correct the problems.

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