The recent killing of a popular Sunni Muslim inmate leader and the stabbing of one of his friends have stoked tension at the maximum-security Maryland House of Correction and put authorities on alert for signs of further unrest.
State corrections officials have embarked on a review of the long-troubled Jessup prison, where two corrections officers were seriously injured in a March attack and three inmates have been killed since May.
"I'm taking a look at the total operation of the facility," said Maryland Commissioner of Correction Frank C. Sizer Jr., who faced similar problems with a rash of violence a year ago at a sister facility, the House Annex in Jessup. "In prisons, these things kind of ebb and flow. Unfortunately, it moves around."
Julius Pratt, 34, the most recent victim, was stabbed to death July 11 by a member of a different religious group called the Lost and Found Nation of Islam, one of about a half-dozen Muslim organizations at the House of Correction.
A Sunni Muslim friend of Pratt's was stabbed a day earlier and was treated for injuries described as not life-threatening. One of two May killings was also of a Sunni Muslim.
Edward Cohn, executive director of the National Major Gang Task Force, a nonprofit Indiana-based organization that advises law enforcement and prison administrators, said it is unusual for one prison to have three killings in two months. The killing of a high-profile inmate leader, he said, should raise alarms.
"One of the things a prison administration always has to be concerned about is retaliation," Cohn said. "These are tough situations to deal with."
While authorities said they have found no evidence that the killings are related to religious or gang affiliations, they acknowledged concern about the recent rash of deadly violence.
The facility houses 1,100 inmates, more than a third of whom are affiliated with Muslin groups, according to Nancy Williams, director of religious services for the state prison system.
Muslims have long been a prominent part of Maryland's inmate population. They are primarily black males who convert to Islam after entering prison, according to state prison officials.
The Sunnis are the largest group, with 157 members, Williams said. Other groups represented include the Nation of Islam, more commonly known as the Black Muslims, affiliated with Louis Farrakhan; the Moorish Science Temple of America; and Lost and Found Nation of Islam.
Inmates often join religious groups for the protection and other benefits that come with being part of a larger organization, according to current and former correctional officials interviewed by The Sun.
While some become devout worshipers, others join religious groups as a way to meet on a regular basis with their peers, Cohn said. Prison administrators must by law provide inmates with times and meeting places for religious services, he said.
Additionally, "a lot of the gangs use religion as an organizing point," Cohn said.
Pratt, the Muslim leader killed July 11, was stabbed in the upper back several times with a homemade knife in a corridor as inmates were returning from the recreation yard, prison officials said. His 35-year-old attacker, who has not been charged, ran past correctional officers to get to Pratt, they said.
On May 22, another Sunni Muslim, James Murphy, 29, was killed in a dormitory for general population inmates after he and two other prisoners were assaulted by three inmates wielding homemade knives. A third prisoner, 34, who was not Muslim, was found dead in his cell May 15 with two puncture wounds in his neck.
James Peguese, assistant commissioner in charge of security for the state prison system, confirmed accounts obtained by The Sun from other sources that Pratt was an influential leader among Sunni Muslims at the House of Correction.
"He was a very popular guy, well known," Peguese said. While not the top leader, "he had some status in the facility," Peguese said.
Pratt had been at the prison since 1994, serving a life sentence for his conviction in Prince George's County on murder and weapons charges.
Authorities have heard various accounts of possible motives behind Pratt's killing, Peguese said. But he said there is no information at this time to link Pratt's killing and the two in May or to other recent violence.
"A few of the people involved were Muslims, but that in and of itself does not necessarily mean anything," Peguese said.
The security chief said he went to the prison this week to talk with staff and inmates about Pratt's killing and to gauge the potential for further violence.
The recent spate of violence at the House of Correction dates to March 29, when two correctional officers suffered serious stab wounds after three inmates assaulted them during their rounds.
Inmates were locked down - meaning confined mainly to their cells - after the incident. About 25 were later transferred to the high-security Supermax prison in Baltimore.