Some life- and-death questions on prisons

September 06, 2006|By GREGORY KANE

A knife-wielding inmate stabbed a correctional officer at the Jessup Correctional Institution yesterday. The incident came as nagging questions persist about the stabbing death of another officer at a nearby prison in July.

Officer David McGuinn was fatally stabbed by two inmates who, corrections officials tell us, managed to jam the locks to their cells, which allowed them to get out and attack McGuinn at the Maryland House of Correction.

Yesterday, another officer was stabbed with a makeshift knife at the JCI - which used to be known as the annex for the Maryland House of Correction. The latest incident occurred shortly after 6 a.m. in the lobby of the facility's A building, said George Gregory, a spokesman for the Maryland Division of Correction. The officer's name was withheld, and he was treated at a hospital near the Jessup prison complex.

Thank heavens the officer's injuries aren't serious. He got off better than McGuinn. But we Americans can be an annoyingly inquisitive lot from time to time. And this is one of those times. Inquiring minds, the saying goes, want to know. And here's what we want to know about what the heck is happening at "Jessup Cut," the street name for prisons there:

1. McGuinn had been removed from the House of Correction housing units because of threats on his life. Someone in a supervisory position apparently ordered him back inside the housing units and had him doing cell counts. Alone. Who did that, and why?

2. Since McGuinn's attackers jammed the locks to their cells to get out and attack him, they apparently knew he'd be doing cell checks. How did they know that information?

3. What's the status of the inmate-on-inmate stabbing that happened Aug. 27, just nine days before the corrections officer was stabbed yesterday?

Gregory said there were no new developments in the nonfatal inmate-on-inmate stabbing. He referred questions about the McGuinn investigation to state police. State police kicked the matter to Kristin Riggin in the Anne Arundel County state's attorney's office. I left a message for Riggin on her office phone. Her cell phone was busy the dozen or so times I called it.

Does it sound like public officials are playing a little game of "Pass The Buck" in the matter of the slaying of Officer David McGuinn and all questions related to it?

OK, so I'll just give public officials the benefit of the doubt and conclude they weren't available to talk to me yesterday and answer my questions. But, I've found, there are always former or current corrections officers who have plenty to say. One is Kevin Hargrave, a captain of corrections officers at the Baltimore City Detention Center who's also a candidate for the House of Delegates in the 41st District. Under normal circumstances, Hargrave wouldn't be allowed to utter one syllable of criticism about what's wrong with the system.

"The only reason I'm able to talk is that I'm a certified candidate for political office," Hargrave said yesterday. "This is the most dangerous period for corrections officers and the people we're supposed to be protecting."

I put the first question on my inquiring-minds-want-to-know list to Hargrave: Why was McGuinn back in the housing units?

"They're not going to try to reach that determination," Hargrave said, adding that there are too many people involved who need their derrieres covered. "A lot of threats against officers aren't taken seriously." Hargrave said he's worked 12 years as a corrections officer, over eight of them at JCI. He repeated a litany of complaints leaders of corrections officers unions have made recently about staffing - or more specifically, the lack of it - and training.

"It's not a trend," Hargrave said of the attacks on corrections officers. "This is the danger we face every day - ever since Gov. [Robert L.] Ehrlich took over and reneged on his promise of reform."

(Note to the governor: you might not want to count on the votes of corrections officers if you expect to get re-elected.)

Herbert Berry is the staff director at the Maryland Correctional Law Enforcement Union. He retired as a corrections officer after he injured his knee while struggling with a violent inmate on the south wing of the Maryland State Penitentiary. He knows firsthand what it's like for a corrections officer to be attacked by an inmate. And he has an inkling about why inmates may be attacking corrections officers.

"They [corrections officers] don't have any kind of defensive training or defensive weapons," Berry said. "A corrections officer goes into that institution with nothing."

Unlike Hargrave, Berry didn't criticize Ehrlich's policies, especially the rehabilitation program known as RESTART that has aroused so much dudgeon among corrections officers.

"RESTART isn't a bad program," Berry said, "but you can't implement it without the proper security measures."

greg.kane@baltsun.com

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