Inmate stabs guard

Officials vow quick improvements at Jessup prison

March 03, 2007|By Gus G. Sentementes and Ruma Kumar | Gus G. Sentementes and Ruma Kumar,Sun reporter

An inmate wounded a correctional officer with a homemade knife yesterday inside the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup, and Gov. Martin O'Malley and prison officials responded by vowing to move swiftly to improve staffing and security within the troubled system.

The officer was attempting to put an inmate back in his cell when the man turned and stabbed him seven times in the upper body, prison officials said. The 28-year-old officer had been on the job since November; the 38-year-old inmate, whose name was withheld, is serving a life sentence for murder, officials said.

It was the second time in less than a year that an officer was stabbed at the maximum-security prison, which has been strongly criticized by correctional officers' unions for operating without sufficient staffing and resources. In July 2006, Officer David McGuinn was killed by inmates wielding homemade knives who had jammed open their cell doors, allowing them to attack the officer.

As about two dozen officers gathered last night for a candlelight vigil outside Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore, O'Malley vowed to address the challenges of staffing and security at the Jessup facility and other prisons across the state.

"One of the biggest concerns [for this administration] is the deep set of challenges we have in the Corrections [Division]," O'Malley said. "We're going to move just as quickly as we can to create a safer environment."

"We're going to get on top of this," O'Malley said. "We're going to get on top of this quickly."

The officer was released from Shock Trauma last night, officials said. Prison officials withheld the name of the officer pending notification of his relatives.

Maj. Priscilla Doggett, a prison spokeswoman, said yesterday's attack occurred at 2:50 p.m. in one of the prison's cellblock wings. She said 10 investigators with the prison system's internal investigations unit were handling the case.

But Janet Anderson, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Classified Employees Association, a union that represents about 400 prison employees in Jessup, said that officers familiar with the incident told her that the inmate who stabbed the officer had been complaining about losing his television privileges recently.

Anderson said the inmate had complained to prison officials and threatened to hurt an officer.

"These threats have to be taken seriously," Anderson said.

Doggett said she did not have any information from investigators that indicated a specific motive behind the attack. Other prison officials said that the officer was likely too new to the job to have been placed on a "hit list" by inmates.

Prison officials have said the long-term plan for the House of Correction is to turn it into a minimum-security prison and transfer most of the violent inmates to a more secure facility in Western Maryland. Since McGuinn's killing last year, the number of inmates held at the House of Correction has dropped from more than 1,200 to 842 as of yesterday, according to prisons spokesman Mark Vernarelli.

Correctional officer unions have long complained about insufficient staffing and equipment and other working conditions that make it difficult to recruit and retain officers. Prison officials have said they have had trouble stopping the flow of illegal contraband - including cell phones and weapons - which contributes to an illicit black market and violence behind prison walls.

Largely because of unfilled positions, the prison system last year spent twice as much money on officer overtime - more than $28 million - than the previous year.

During last year's gubernatorial campaign, O'Malley frequently attacked then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s track record on prison security after two correctional officers and several inmates were killed in separate incidents.

Improving correctional officer staffing and training are among the top five issues facing the prison system, according to an O'Malley administration transition report released this month.

"The staffing shortages and training and skills deficits within the corrections system continue to serve as the driving factor for security and safety issues," the report said. The report called for extra focus on the prisons in Jessup.

Sue Esty, interim executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 92, sharply criticized the state's "mismanagement" of the prison system over the past four years.

"It's really reached a tipping point," Esty said outside Shock Trauma. "The crimes we've seen over the last couple of years are crimes of opportunities - crimes that wouldn't happen if we had adequate staffing, if there was more observation of inmate movement."

In December at the Jessup Correctional Institution, three officers were stabbed by an inmate who was serving three life sentences plus 20 years for murder. The inmate assaulted one officer as inmates were leaving a dayroom, and other officers intervened in the struggle.

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