The price of violence

Hospital care for inmates assaulted in Maryland prisons is expected to cost more than $1 million this year

September 21, 2006|By Greg Garland and Annie Linskey | Greg Garland and Annie Linskey,Sun reporters

Maryland is on track to spend upward of $1 million to treat inmates who have been injured in prison violence this year, a tab that doesn't include the cost borne by local governments of transporting inmates to hospitals and of prosecuting assailants, records show.

In the first six months of this year, 257 assaults took place in state-run prisons and jails in which injuries suffered by prisoners were severe enough to warrant trips to the hospital, according to a report by a state contractor that monitors medical treatment costs. Hospital and emergency room costs to treat the inmates came to about $860,000, the report says.

Other expenses: Correctional officers attacked on the job can draw as much as two-thirds of their pay for up to a year as "accident leave" if administrators approve. Some counties foot the bills for taking inmates by ambulance to area hospitals. And county prosecutors spend tens of thousands of dollars making cases against prisoners for the violent crimes they commit behind bars.

The total costs are hard to measure, but this year has been especially bloody. Two correctional officers and three inmates have been killed; dozens have been seriously injured. The state's corrections chief lost his job as a result, and the problems have led to greater legislative scrutiny of the way the prison system is managed.

"I think it's more serious than anyone realizes," said Sen. James E. DeGrange Sr., an Anne Arundel County Democrat who has set a legislative hearing for 10 a.m. today on prison violence.

Anne Arundel County State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee said his office could keep a full-time prosecutor busy handling nothing but cases from the complex of state prisons in Jessup.

"There is a lot of money tied up in these prosecutions," Weathersbee said.

He recalled the office working on a prison murder case that dragged on for two years and cost the county $250,000.

Weathersbee said "violence is running rampant" inside the Jessup prisons.

Kimberly Haven, director of Justice Maryland, a group that advocates for prisoners and their families, said the state is paying the price for failing to fund the kind of rehabilitation programs known to reduce prison violence.

"We're not using our resources wisely, and we end up paying more in the long run," she said. "I can only imagine what programs we could put together with that million dollars, instead of prosecuting people and patching them up."

Conditions in Maryland's prisons are so bad, Haven said, that inmates have told her they strap magazines to their chests, under their shirts, before going to the dining hall - makeshift body armor to protect themselves from knife attacks.

Such precautions seem prudent.

Searches at the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup after the July 25 killing of Correctional Officer David McGuinn turned up dozens of "shanks" - homemade knives - as well as numerous cell phones, pornographic DVDs, sacks of tobacco and other contraband.

The Sun obtained photos from a source that show a large conference table laden with weapons and other prohibited items recovered during searches of the prison after McGuinn's killing.

Prison officials confirmed the photos are authentic.

"What this shows is the level of problems that existed at the Maryland House of Correction," said Priscilla Doggett, a spokeswoman for the state prisons. "Our new acting commissioner is adamant that he is going to attack this problem and clean up the environment where this kind of contraband can enter our facilities."

The acting commissioner is John A. Rawley, who previously ran a medium-security prison in Jessup. He replaced Commissioner Frank C. Sizer Jr., who abruptly stepped down last month. State officials recently announced they will spend an additional $7 million this year to improve security in the state's prisons.

The House of Correction has been on lockdown since Mc-Guinn's death two months ago, which means inmates are largely confined to their cells or dormitories and most privileges are revoked.

DeGrange said he has heard from inmates and their relatives that they feel they have to arm themselves and join gangs for self-protection inside the prisons.

"They realize these correctional officers can't protect themselves so they figure they sure as hell can't protect us," DeGrange said.

While inmates fashion shanks from pieces of metal, plastic or other items, contraband such as cell phones and tobacco is usually smuggled in by visitors or corrupt staff, according to current and former prison officials.

According to the prison assaults report done for the state by Wexford Health Services Inc., the Jessup complex accounted for nearly one-fourth of the 257 claims paid for inmate assaults from January to June, at a cost of about $265,000. There were 41 claims paid in the eastern region, 33 in the Hagerstown region, 32 in the Baltimore region and four in the western region. An additional 88 claims were paid for assaults at two state-run jails, the report said.

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