The fugitive

Our view: Inmate's escape spotlights a chain of human errors in state prison system

March 04, 2010

It sounds like a classic case of the tail wagging the dog. An inmate at a prison in Western Maryland files a piddling lawsuit on the Eastern Shore that requires his presence in court. When corrections officials attempt to transport him there so he can testify, he outwits them during a stopover in Baltimore and makes good his escape.

This would be the stuff of a Hollywood movie -- or an urban legend -- except that it really happened. Raymond Taylor was serving three life terms at a maximum security facility in Cumberland for a triple shooting when he escaped from a downtown prison in Baltimore last Friday while en route to the Eastern Shore. He walked out posing as another inmate and made it as far as West Virginia before being recaptured the next day.

The Baltimore prison is a hub for inmates being transferred from one jurisdiction to another, and Mr. Taylor's guards had brought him there during their trek across the state to Somerset County, where he was to appear in court against an Eastern Shore woman he claimed owed him $685 for prison artwork. Of course, it cost the state a lot more than $685 to bring a felon under guard from Cumberland to Somerset, and one might reasonably ask why the state went to such trouble and expense -- not to mention the risk of escape -- to ensure Mr. Taylor got his day in court over a trifling sum.

The simple answer is that prison officials had no choice -- even though that makes no sense whatsoever.

Still, consider that officers transport thousands of inmates around the state every year, mostly for routine appearances at arraignments, trials, appeals and the like. What all these proceedings have in common, though, is a judge. When judges summon inmates to court, it's the corrections department's responsibility to get them there.

Thus, when a judge in Somerset County ordered Mr. Taylor to appear in court to press his case, corrections officials had no choice but to comply. It wasn't up to the prison warden in Cumberland, nor officials in Baltimore, to decide whether Mr. Taylor's claim warranted hauling him from one end of the state to the other, or even whether there wasn't some better way to allow his suit to proceed. What happened next was one of the inevitable absurdities to which large bureaucracies are prone.

There are lessons to be learned from this incident, which fortunately was concluded with no injuries or deaths. First, judges really ought to consider alternatives to court appearances by potentially dangerous felons in some cases. The department of corrections already makes use of teleconferencing for parole hearings and other internal deliberations, and there's no reason such technologies couldn't be adopted for inmates -- both those who bring minor civil suits and those who are involved in more weighty matters. Video conferences might not be appropriate in all cases, but they could be used more often at a substantial savings to the state and a reduction of risk from transporting prisoners.

And speaking of technology, it's time authorities got serious about using electronic fingerprint, palm print and retinal scans to positively identify inmates in state institutions. Mr. Taylor never could have gotten through three layers of security in Baltimore if these techniques had been in use. Maryland is developing an automated fingerprint information system, and prison officials say they're already deploying portable fingerprint scanners in some prisons. Officials should work toward a more permanent solution.

One last thing: More common sense. Even the best systems fail when humans err. Mr. Taylor was carrying another inmate's ID card with a picture on it that looked nothing like him, yet no one noticed. Prison officials still have some explaining to do about that one. And as for that Somerset County judge who was so obliging of Mr. Taylor's wish to travel: Please, next time he knocks on your courthouse door, just have the clerk tell him you've gone fishing.

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