NAACP seeks meeting on prisons

City chapter points to staff shortages in wake of fatal stabbing, critical U.S. report

October 09, 2006|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,Sun reporter

The Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has requested an emergency meeting with state prison officials after one man was recently stabbed to death at the city's adult jail and a recently disclosed report by the U.S. Department of Justice highlighted problems at the city's juvenile jail.

Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham Sr., president of the city NAACP chapter, said he requested a meeting with the secretaries of the state's Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, which oversees state prisons and Baltimore jails, and the Department of Juveniles Services, which oversees a juvenile jail in the city.

Cheatham, who said he requested the meeting in a letter faxed Saturday, repeated the criticism that state prison and jail officials have faced recently -- that more officers and staff are needed to maintain safety behind prison walls.

He said other serious incidents behind jail or prison walls have pointed to such a need, including the fatal stabbing of correctional officer David McGuinn at a Jessup prison over the summer, and the beating death last year of an inmate at the city's Central Booking and Intake Center, allegedly by correctional officers. Two of those officers are on trial for that killing.

Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said he was not aware of the NAACP's request for a meeting, and couldn't comment on it until he returned to the office this week. He said the secretary of the department, Mary Ann Saar, was on vacation.

On Friday, two male inmates were stabbed and found in a cell at the Baltimore City Detention Center. Both were transported to Johns Hopkins Hospital, where one died. He was identified as Stephon Nicholson, 19, who was awaiting trial on a murder charge, according to Barbara Cooper, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore jails.

Cooper identified the surviving victim as Kevon D. Gantt, 19, who had been awaiting trial on charges including attempted murder and assault. He was treated for his injuries and returned to state custody over the weekend. She declined to release the facility where he was being held.

An article in The Sun on Saturday disclosed that the U.S. Department of Justice had investigated and issued a report concluding that the state had run the 144-bed Juvenile Justice Center on Gay Street in an unconstitutional manner. The report noted high youth-on-youth assault rates and inadequate mental health treatment and safeguards against suicide.

Juvenile Services Secretary Kenneth C. Montague Jr. said that the report's findings reflected conditions from a year ago that have since been addressed. The report was dated Aug. 7, but it was not publicly released until The Sun learned about its existence and asked for a copy from the department last week.

As recently as August, an independent monitor alerted Montague in a written letter to "the ongoing issue of staffing shortages and the threat to life, health and safety this presents to children," The Sun previously reported.

"We're not aware of the letter [from Cheatham] as yet, and we simply cannot comment on what we can do until we see the contents of the letter," said Edward Hopkins, a Juvenile Services spokesman.

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