Inmates get day in court

Who's in charge of this prison?

July 29, 2006|By GREGORY KANE

So who's running the Maryland House of Correction?

Not the corrections officers. Not if inmates can make up a hit list with the names of those officers they want to kill. Not if David McGuinn can be on such a reputed list and be stabbed to death by two inmates.

In fact, McGuinn might have been killed for having the chutzpah to believe that, as a corrections officer, he was in charge.

M. Kim Howard, the president of the Maryland Correctional Law Enforcement Union, said she has talked to people who are still corrections officers and who knew McGuinn.

"He was by the book," Howard said of McGuinn. The 41-year-old corrections officer would send inmates to the cafeteria at the time they were supposed to eat, have them back in the unit when they were supposed to be there, have them in their cells whenever the rules called for it. He took no favors from inmates, had no favorites and did not deviate from procedure.

That, apparently, was enough to get McGuinn killed.

"The officers right now do not have control of the institution," said Howard, adding that the prison is understaffed, the corrections officers are given little training and are no longer allowed to use pepper spray, Mace or batons on inmates.

"They're sending those officers in there and putting them in a death trap," Howard said. "We work 24-7 inside that institution with no weapons. The hope is that if the officer has a confrontation with an inmate, that the officer is stronger."

The MCLEU represents over 400 corrections officers, according to Howard. Her rank-and-file members are understandably upset about McGuinn's death, but that's not all they're upset about.

"The members are simply saying they don't have enough staff," Howard said. "They know this officer should not have been back in the institution. As corrections officers they know an idle threat from a real threat."

Corrections department spokespersons have said in news reports that a staffing shortage did not contribute to McGuinn's killing.

"I ain't buying that," said Richard L. Simmons, a former corrections officer. "Everybody knows better than that." Simmons now works as a family counselor at King Memorial Park, a cemetery. He was a corrections officer for 23 years. He retired from that job in 1999. One of the places he worked was the annex at Jessup, where the Maryland House of Correction is located.

"We never had none of that when I was down there," Simmons said of killings of corrections officers. "On a normal day, you might have a couple of fights. At the time, they weren't that short on corrections officers."

Howard isn't buying the staffing-wasn't-a-factor line from department honchos either.

"It was a big factor," Howard said. "They have over 40 positions at the House of Correction alone that are vacant."

As Howard sat in the MCLEU office in the 2500 block of Calvert St. yesterday, her anger and frustration were clearly etched on her face. This is not a happy woman. She's furious. All of us should be.

Howard directed most of her anger toward Mary Ann Saar, Maryland's secretary of public safety and correctional services.

"I believe Secretary Saar should be terminated from her position or hand in her resignation," Howard said. "Two corrections officers have been killed on her watch. I think she's trying to run it [the prison system] like it's a college campus instead of a penal system."

Howard also criticized Saar for being more concerned about funding for Project RESTART - a program for inmate rehabilitation - than for using that money to upgrade security at Maryland prisons, especially the ancient facility at Jessup.

"If you know the facility has been there since [the 19th century], and you knew there was no refurbishing," Howard asked, "why would you put their [corrections officers'] lives in jeopardy by not refurbishing? Why not secure your officers first?"

That's fast becoming a "When will dead dogs roll over?" question in these parts. It's one of many that Saar and her boss, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., will have to answer. Unlike the military, where drill sergeants tell boot campers that the bad stuff settles at the bottom, in public office it settles at the top. That's where accountability begins and ends.

Prison officials tried to do some of that accounting yesterday. George Gregory, a corrections department spokesman, said that officers aren't prevented from using pepper spray but that the decision to use it is up to the manager on duty. Batons, Gregory said, are not an issued item. They are part of the equipment used by tactical team members.

On why McGuinn, a reputedly marked man, was allowed back in the Maryland House of Correction, Gregory said, "That's still under review. We don't know that yet."

Simmons, the old-timer, had a different take.

"They'll be investigating the next six months," Simmons said. "That way, they don't have to come up with no answers."

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