Legislators to address prison woes

Recent killing, other violence spur plan for August hearing

July 28, 2006|By SUMATHI REDDY AND GREG GARLAND | SUMATHI REDDY AND GREG GARLAND,SUN REPORTERS

Maryland lawmakers called yesterday for an emergency hearing next month to air concerns about the escalation of violence at the Maryland House of Correction - culminating in the fatal attack on an officer this week.

Though the joint House and Senate subcommittee hearing will examine safety issues at all of the state's correctional facilities, the spotlight will be on the Jessup prison, where a 41-year-old correctional officer was killed Tuesday night. That followed the killings of three inmates and two nonfatal attacks on officers at the prison this year.

Lawmakers pointed to staffing levels at the prison as their main concern.

"Something's not working," said Sen. James E. DeGrange Sr., an Anne Arundel County Democrat who is chairman of the Subcommittee on Public Safety, Transportation and the Environment. "These are issues that we've been talking about for a long time ... and it's not getting any better; it's getting worse."

Lawmakers expect Mary Ann Saar, the secretary of public safety and correctional services, to attend the hearing, which is scheduled for Aug. 8.

Two inmates have been charged in Tuesday's fatal stabbing of David McGuinn, a correctional officer at the maximum-security Jessup prison. Prison system officials had reported earlier that three suspects were involved, but they revised their account yesterday.

The attack occurred while the 1,100-inmate prison was on high alert and lockdown status - leaving prisoners confined mostly to their cells - because of rumors that inmates were planning to attack an officer.

Inmates have been known to jam cell door locks using chewing gum and pieces of cardboard or paper, correctional officers say.

The prison remained on lockdown yesterday as authorities searched cellblocks for contraband and some inmates were transferred, said Maj. Priscilla Doggett, a prison system spokeswoman.

Several homemade knives were recovered and were being tested to determine whether they were used in the attack, said Greg Shipley, a spokesman for the Maryland State Police.

Mark A. Vernarelli, director of public information for the public safety agency, said the prison has 345 correctional officers and 49 vacancies.

"We don't believe that staffing was an issue at all in the officer's death," he said.

Jacqueline Lampell, the department's communications director, said inmate unrest was heightened after a recent crackdown on contraband.

There were 108 assaults by inmates on staff members in Division of Correction facilities in the first quarter of this year and 303 assaults by inmates on other inmates, according to an agency report submitted to the legislature. Most were classified as not serious.

Inmate-on-staff assaults at maximum-security institutions increased from 3.44 per 100 inmates in fiscal 2003-2004 to 6.64 in 2004-2005, the most recent years for which figures were available, according to a budget analysis from the nonpartisan Department of Legislative Services.

McGuinn was the second state correctional officer killed this year. In January, Jeffrey A. Wroten was shot to death with his gun while guarding an inmate at a Hagerstown hospital.

McGuinn was the first correctional officer killed at a Maryland prison since Herman L. Toulson Jr. was stabbed in the Maryland State Penitentiary in 1984.

That killing sparked outrage that led to the demolition of the south wing of the penitentiary, recalled Timothy Maloney, who was chairman of the public safety subcommittee in the House of Delegates at the time.

Maloney said the House of Correction was supposed to be the next prison to be demolished and its replacement was in the correctional master plan for about 15 years.

"It's outrageous that the House of Correction remains standing today," Maloney said. "It probably violates every known modern correctional design standard."

Increased staffing would not alleviate the prison's extensive problems, Maloney said. But replacing it would take a lot of political will, he said, noting that it was nine years after Toulson's death that the south wing of the penitentiary was demolished.

"It's an expensive undertaking that competes with the public school construction program," Maloney said.

The state's prisons chief, Frank C. Sizer Jr., said this week that plans call for moving many maximum-security inmates from the House of Correction to the North Branch Correctional Institution, a new prison near Cumberland.

Lawmakers said they have discussed closing the House of Correction but that every option is on the table after this year's increased violence.

"I would not be opposed to getting an outside consultant to investigate the facility and give a recommendation on replacement or renovations," said Del. Joan Cadden, an Anne Arundel County Democrat who is chairwoman of the House subcommittee overseeing the prison budget.

"The maintenance of older facilities like Jessup should have been a top priority. How can you have jail where you can jam the doors?" she asked.

sumathi.reddy@baltsun.com greg.garland@baltsun.com

To read Sen. James E. DeGrange Sr.'s letter calling for an emergency meeting to discuss the violence at the Maryland House of Correction, go to baltimoresun.com/degrange.

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