Prison violence leads to outrage

Guard is killed

union says system in crisis

July 27, 2006|By GREG GARLAND | GREG GARLAND,SUN REPORTER

The stabbing death of a Maryland correctional officer - the second killed this year - is sending shock waves through the state's troubled and violence-beset prison system and is prompting calls to replace its top managers.

How, union officials and others are asking, was it possible for three inmates at the maximum-security House of Correction in Jessup to get out of their cells Tuesday night and kill David McGuinn, a by-the-book correctional officer who was on an inmate "hit list"?

And how, they ask, could this have happened even though the prison has been on high alert after a rash of violence that included the nonfatal stabbing of two officers in March and the killing of three inmates since May?

In a system that in some senses has become inured to violence, McGuinn's killing has caused outrage - and led to fears that there could be worse to come.

"Heads need to roll from the top down," said Robert Stephens, who heads the Maryland Classified Employees Association, a group that represents some correctional officers.

Union officials have demanded that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. meet with them to discuss what they describe as a prison system in crisis.

Ehrlich said he would be "glad to meet with anybody at any time" but said he doesn't think the incident was related to the union's complaints.

"I've been briefed this morning on the facts," Ehrlich said yesterday. "This shouldn't have anything to do with union politics. This was not a function of the lack of supervision. It was not a function of a post being closed down. This was not a function of procedures not being followed. ... To the extent a procedure does not work or fails or needs to be revised, we will look at it."

By all accounts, the House of Correction, which houses 1,100 inmates, many of them serving lengthy sentences for violent offenses, is a difficult prison to manage. Built in 1878, it is poorly designed to handle such inmates, administrators acknowledge.

The age and poor design proved deadly for McGuinn, 41, Tuesday night after he was stabbed in the neck and back by three inmates apparently armed with homemade knives. Prison officials had little personal information yesterday about McGuinn, who had worked in the system for two years.

Division of Correction Commissioner Frank C. Sizer Jr. said McGuinn was killed as he was taking head counts on the prison's west wing. Three inmates who had jammed old, faulty locks to their cell doors got out and attacked McGuinn, Sizer said.

Last night, state police obtained warrants charging two inmates with McGuinn's slaying. They were identified as Lamar C. Harris, 26, and Lee E. Stephens, 27 - both charged with first- and second-degree murder.

Correctional officers familiar with the Jessup prison say inmates can use chewing gum or pieces of cardboard or paper to jam the locks. The cell doors appear closed, they say, but don't fully catch.

Sizer said the House of Correction had been on lockdown status since the weekend - meaning prisoners were confined mostly to their cells - because administrators had heard rumors inmates were planning to attack an officer.

The corrections chief said those reports led officials to cancel an inmate family picnic planned for last Saturday and to place the facility on lockdown.

Two sources, who spoke on condition that their names not be used because of policies that prohibit corrections officers from talking to reporters, said McGuinn had been on an inmate "hit list." McGuinn was assigned for a time to work outside the housing units and away from contact with inmates because of the threats, they said.

"Officer McGuinn was a target, we do know that," said Janet Anderson, an MCEA spokeswoman. "These hit lists circulate on a regular basis."

Maj. Priscilla Doggett, public information officer for the prison system, said she wasn't aware of a "hit list." But she said administrators are looking into allegations about inmates making threats against McGuinn.

"The allegations did come to the attention of his supervisor, and in response [McGuinn] was initially assigned to a post outside of the housing units," Doggett said.

It wasn't clear yesterday why McGuinn was back working inside the housing units, but the prison has been short-staffed for months and employee turnover rates have been high. Sizer said there are currently 47 vacant positions that prison officials have had trouble filling.

While serious problems occur in prisons around the state, the House of Correction stands in a class of its own. Records show that contraband such as drugs, tobacco and cell phones has flowed freely there.

Violence is more prevalent and prisoners have had freer rein than in other prisons. The prison's reputation is such that it is known informally among correctional staff as the "House of Corruption."

Ironically, McGuinn was killed the same day Sizer announced he was bringing in a new warden, Wendell M. "Pete" France, with a mandate to reduce violence at the prison. France is to take over the position Monday.

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