Inmates target strictest officers

Jessup prison's lax culture problematic, workers say

July 30, 2006|By GREG GARLAND | GREG GARLAND,SUN REPORTER

Amid the steady flow of drugs, tobacco, cell phones and other contraband at the Maryland House of Corrections, officers who strictly enforce the rules end up putting targets on their backs, say former inmates and those who have worked in the Jessup prison.

Officer David McGuinn, who was not one to look the other way, was stabbed to death last week by inmates who, according to colleagues, considered his diligence an annoying burden. Since March, three inmates were stabbed to death and two officers were wounded with homemade knives.

The long-ingrained culture of laxness by some prison staff that led to the violence has been building for years and won't be solved easily or quickly, according to prison system administrators, correctional officers and former inmates.

Threats against McGuinn's life were carried out after two inmates allegedly jammed the locks to their cell doors and emerged to stab him as he walked a notoriously dangerous tier in the prison's west wing.

"McGuinn was straight up and down," said Erika Ballard, a former correctional dietary officer who went through a training academy program with McGuinn.

While he "wasn't a mean person or the kind who would be involved in beating an inmate up," McGuinn didn't cut inmates any breaks when it came to enforcing rules, according to Ballard.

"They [inmates] said last summer they were going to kill him before the summer was over," Ballard said. "It was like a joke."

Corrections officials have acknowledged that they assigned McGuinn to outside duties for a time, where he would be away from inmates. They have not explained why his supervisor recently reassigned him to work back inside the housing units.

Timothy Smith, a correctional officer at the Jessup prison for three years, said doing the job properly - as McGuinn and another officer who was stabbed and wounded in a March attack tried to do - marked you as an oddball and could put your life in danger.

"If you are a by-the-book officer, you are basically ridiculed," said Smith, who quit the job in March 2005 for other employment and to go back to school. He described a lax attitude among some officers who would do favors for inmates.

Indeed, prison administrators believe that staff members have been the source of cell phones brought in to prisoners - a security concern because they can be used by inmates to coordinate criminal activity inside and outside prisons. Legislative proposals to make it a felony to possess a cell phone inside the secured area of a prison have died in committee.

"We acknowledge that some staff may be corrupt, but we have every belief and confidence that the majority of our staff are hard-working and dedicated officers who come to work who want to operate a safe prison," said Maj. Priscilla Doggett, a spokeswoman for the prison system.

"We do not tolerate, condone or accept corruption at any level of our organization, and when we find that it is occurring and the facts are available to make a solid case, we will deal with it no matter where it falls," Doggett said.

In her first public comments since McGuinn's stabbing death, Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services Secretary Mary Ann Saar said Friday that the recent eruption of violence at the Jessup prison appears to have been sparked in part by determined efforts by corrections administrators to change the long-standing culture at the House of Correction.

She also said Maryland's prison system, as is the case for others around the country, is dealing with more violent gang members as part of the prison population.

"I think the more that you ratchet down on inmates and make sure they are following your rules and regulations, initially there is going to be a reaction," Saar said.

But Saar said it is important that prison staff send a firm message that they - not inmates - control the institutions.

"We are going to run an efficient, safe and secure system, and I don't care if the inmates don't like that," Saar said.

To stem the flow of contraband, administrators recently installed new, more sensitive screening devices that staff and visitors must pass through to enter the prison. And, Saar said, they are making a concerted effort to find and root out corrupt staff.

"I know for a fact that we have terminated a number of corrupt officers out there," Saar said, referring to firings at the House of Correction.

Ron Bailey, executive director of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 92, acknowledged cases of fraternization and contraband. But, he said, "to say it is ingrained in the culture - I'm not going to go that far."

Bailey said he counsels officers not to do small favors, such as bringing in cigarettes for inmates, because it leads to escalating demands. But, he said, "I keep getting word that a lot of officers do a lot of things for inmates because they fear for their safety," adding that some officers hope an inmate will step in to protect them if they ever need it.

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