End brutality behind bars

April 24, 2008|By Sally Dworak-Fisher

While awaiting trial nearly three years ago, Raymond Smoot was beaten to death by correctional officers at Baltimore's Central Booking and Intake Facility. His death prompted an FBI investigation, City Council hearings and a bill to create a prison violence task force.

But three years after cries of "never again," the task force has not yet convened, and recent reports suggest that Maryland's prisons inflict punishments beyond what any judge or jury might imagine. It's time to take meaningful steps to shine the light of public scrutiny on Maryland's jails and prisons.

The problem is not confined to Baltimore. Officers allegedly beat inmates recently at the Roxbury Correctional Institution in Hagerstown. The inmates claim that they were then transferred to North Branch Correctional Institution, where they were beaten even more severely by other guards.

Incidents of severe brutality and murder suggest a prison culture in which violence is thought of as a tool of prison management - a culture developed behind closed doors, in a world largely hidden from public scrutiny. Although most correctional staff struggle to ensure the safety of inmates and the public, a small group emboldened to take lawless action will often set the tone.

Moreover, such violence cannot help but run both ways. The tragic deaths of correctional officers such as David W. McGuinn, who died at the now-closed Maryland House of Correction, warn of a system unable to maintain safety. This culture of violence will continue unless and until Maryland makes a firm commitment to stop it.

Gary D. Maynard, Maryland's secretary of public safety and correctional services, has made promising statements against the recent violence, and has taken swift action against the officers. However, simply investigating incidents that are sufficiently brutal to make the headlines is not enough. Maryland needs a more comprehensive and systemic approach to shed light on the dysfunctions that have developed behind our prison walls.

Increased transparency will bring problems to light before they become serious. Openness - followed by quick steps to fix problems - will save taxpayer dollars by averting costly litigation and ensuring that correctional institutions focus on "correcting."

There is a template for change available to Maryland officials: "Confronting Confinement," the report of the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons. It contains concrete, common-sense recommendations to improve prison conditions, gathered over a year of hearings from experts nationwide. Among its recommendations is an independent state agency to monitor prisons and jails, with unlimited access to facilities, records, staff and inmates. Maryland lacks such independent, external oversight; its Commission on Correctional Standards is an agency within the Department of Public Safety, and its regularly scheduled audits focus largely on whether correctional facilities have certain written policies.

True, such independent agencies are rare in the United States, but a handful of states have them, and international models provide additional guidance. One promising model is the Inspectorate of Prisons for England and Wales, which monitors and reports on correctional facilities according to whether they comply with the four elements of a healthy institution: safety, respect for human dignity, purposeful activity and preparation for re-entry. Maryland's Office of the Independent Juvenile Justice Monitor is another model to study.

Maryland must commit to transparency and accountability for the conditions in its correctional facilities, and Secretary Maynard, who sat on the Commission of Safety and Abuse, should be supported in efforts to create this change. Let's make sure that before another three years pass and there are more injuries and deaths, we fix the system that failed Raymond Smoot, David McGuinn, and others whose names have never reached us.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sally Dworak-Fisher is an attorney with the Public Justice Center in Baltimore

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