Prison officials discuss violence

Gang activity, lack of rehab programs called main causes

September 22, 2006|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,sun reporter

A growing prison population of tough, young gang members and the lack of enough educational and rehabilitation programs for other inmates is fueling much of the violence in Maryland's prisons, corrections officials told a legislative panel yesterday.

"Most of it is from gang-related activities, but not all of the violence is from gangs," said John A. Rowley, acting prisons commissioner. "We need to isolate these folks, and that's going to take some time."

He and Public Safety Secretary Mary Ann Saar told legislators serving on a joint Senate and House of Delegates oversight committee that they are taking several steps to address security concerns.

Among other things, they said, the agency has beefed up its intelligence-gathering operations and is working with federal authorities to compile information on gang activities on the streets and in prisons. That data will be entered into a computer system for all Maryland law enforcement agencies to share.

Prison officials were dispatched recently to Connecticut to review a "gang management" program that is regarded as a model in the corrections field, Saar said.

Legislators applauded recent efforts to tighten security but told Saar they are frustrated by continued violence in the prisons and dissatisfied that more hasn't been done to address the problem until recently.

"I'm very frustrated," said Del. Joan Cadden, an Anne Arundel County Democrat. "We need to move more expeditiously than I believe we've been moving."

Sen. Ulysses Currie, a Prince George's County Democrat, said Maryland, as one of the wealthiest states in the nation, should have an exceptional prison system. But, he said, the system is "in crisis" and managers don't seem to have control.

"We cannot tolerate inmates running our facilities," Currie said.

Sen. James E. DeGrange Sr., an Anne Arundel County Democrat, offered a firsthand account of lax security in the prisons. "I've gotten calls to my office from an inmate in prison," DeGrange said. "That's absurd that they have cell phones."

Cell phones are prohibited inside prisons because inmates can use them to coordinate criminal activities inside and outside prisons. DeGrange said the steady flow of such contraband into some prisons suggests possible corruption by supervisors at those institutions.

Saar said her agency has sponsored legislation in past years to make possession of a cell phone inside a prison a felony to discourage corrupt staff members or visitors from smuggling them in to prisoners.

DeGrange also questioned the screening process for hiring correctional officers. He said he has been told that some openly sport tattoos that indicate gang affiliation, such as teardrops or spider webs.

James Peguese, the prison system administrator in charge of security issues, said certain tattoos can indicate gang affiliation but that not everyone who has one is a gang member.

Another prison administrator, Deputy Commissioner Larry Franklin, told DeGrange that no gang members have been hired "to our knowledge."

The wide-ranging discussion during the 2 1/2 -hour hearing touched on several issues confronting the corrections department, including how to isolate from the rest of the inmates violent prisoners who have no interest in educational or rehabilitation programs.

Saar said prison officials are converting the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup - a hard-to-secure prison that was built in 1878 - into a minimum-security facility.

The prison, which houses about 1,100 medium- and maximum-security prisoners, is where Officer David McGuinn was killed by two knife-wielding inmates July 25.

Saar said medium-security inmates from the House of Correction are being transferred to other prisons around the state. Some maximum-security prisoners also have been moved, and more will be transferred as new sections of North Branch Correctional Institution in Cumberland open in coming months, she said.

The keys to running a safe prison system, Saar said, are a well-trained and properly equipped correctional staff, and "appropriate programs for inmates" to keep them occupied and to provide them with tools to help them succeed when they are released.

"It's incumbent on us to put all these pieces in place," said Saar, who has been unsuccessful in the past in persuading legislators to provide more money for inmate rehabilitation program.

She said Pennsylvania and Virginia, where there are far fewer inmate assaults than in Maryland, provide many more inmate rehabilitation programs.

"That is where corrections needs to be," Saar said. "There is a direct correlation."

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