Supermax as hospital

Prison bus killer judged too dangerous for mental facility

June 24, 2008|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,Sun reporter

A convicted killer who was found not criminally responsible this month for his third homicide will remain incarcerated at a maximum-security prison while receiving treatment for his psychiatric illnesses from the state health department - a decision that defense attorneys say effectively "guts" the laws designed to protect the criminally insane.

The determination to keep Kevin G. Johns Jr. at the Supermax prison in Baltimore came after the prison's warden and the security chief of the state's maximum-security psychiatric hospital concluded that the medical facility would not be able to keep its staff or patients safe with Johns there, even if he is confined to the ward reserved for the hospital's most dangerous patients.

It marks the first time that a defendant committed to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene will be treated at a prison facility rather than a psychiatric institution, lawyers in the case said.

Attorneys for the state and its agencies say the case is singularly different because Johns committed his second and third murders while incarcerated.

"Kevin Johns is probably going to kill some more people before he dies, and I just don't think we should make it easy for him," said S. Ann Brobst, a Baltimore County prosecutor who had sought a death sentence for Johns.

Sheilah Davenport, the chief executive officer of the Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center, the state's maximum-security psychiatric facility, said that Johns' case also differs because of the extraordinary security measures that prison staff members now take to prevent any physical contact between Johns and anyone else at Supermax.

"He is currently under a very high level of security and it would be difficult to replicate that," Davenport said in an interview after a commitment hearing yesterday. "Actually it would be almost impossible to replicate that in a hospital setting."

Harford County Circuit Judge Emory A. Plitt Jr. ordered yesterday that Johns be committed to the custody of the state health department for "institutional in-patient care and treatment." He denied a request from defense attorneys to specify in his order that the treatment be provided at a facility run by the health department, explaining that state law does not grant him the authority to do so.

Defense attorneys said they will challenge the decision to treat Johns at Supermax rather than in a psychiatric hospital. They also expressed concern that the decision could open the door for health department officials to place other mentally ill patients in correctional facilities without justification.

"To say that Kevin Johns is any different than the people who commit heinous crimes who they've been treating there for 40 years since the inception of the hospital ... it strains credulity," defense attorney Carroll L. McCabe said.

2 decades of illness

Johns, 25, who has two previous murder convictions and almost two decades of documented psychiatric illnesses, was found guilty but not criminally responsible on June 9 in the killing of a fellow inmate aboard a prison bus.

Philip E. Parker Jr., a 20-year-old inmate who was serving a 3 1/2 -year sentence for a robbery with a broken pellet gun, was strangled in February 2005 during a pre-dawn drive from Hagerstown to Supermax in Baltimore.

Judge Plitt agreed to defer signing a commitment order for Johns until yesterday, giving the state health department and the Division of Correction time to figure out what to do with Johns.

In court papers filed Friday afternoon, John S. Wolfe, the Supermax warden, and Maj. Charles English, security director of the Perkins hospital, laid out reasons why the prison is the most appropriate place for Johns to receive psychiatric treatment.

Lower security

Wolfe noted that although Perkins is classified as a maximum-security hospital, when compared with the state's other psychiatric facilities, Perkins would be categorized as minimum-security if it were a prison.

Wolfe's affidavit also provided an unusual glimpse into the security measures used by the correctional officers and others who must interact with Johns in prison. He is housed in a single cell and receives all of his meals in that cell through a slot in the door.

"At no time is he unrestrained in close proximity to staff or other inmates," the warden wrote. "If he should need to be taken out of the institution - for example, to go to the hospital or to court - he is handcuffed in front through the food slot of his cell, instructed to turn around and kneel. After the door is opened, he is placed in leg irons and a waist chain."

Johns is also strip-searched before any trip out of his cell, including when he is being taken to an outdoor recreation cage or indoor day room for the one hour a day that he is permitted out of his cell, according to the affidavit.

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