By Kevin Rector, The Baltimore Sun
10:53 AM EDT, April 13, 2013
Phyllis Scott was waiting for the day her son would be released from prison to return to East Baltimore, and she hoped he could steer clear of trouble in the future.
But that day never came.
Malcolm Jerrod "Rod" Pridget, who was just shy of his 20th birthday, left the Western Correctional Institution in late November in critical condition after sustaining severe head injuries in his cell. He died at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center a couple of days later — another victim in a recent spate of deadly violence in the state's prisons.
"I need some answers," said Scott, who found her son swollen and bloodied at the hospital. She has pressed prison officials for details about his death and wonders why no arrest has been made.
Even as Gov. Martin O'Malley and state lawmakers celebrate an impending end to Maryland's death penalty, killings in state prisons — some involving inmates such as Pridget, who was serving a relatively short sentence on drug charges — show no signs of tapering off. Mourning relatives and civil liberties advocates say that the trend is unacceptable and that prison officials should be doing more to ensure the safety of prisoners while in state custody.
Despite successful efforts to curb assaults and gather intelligence on prison gangs, seven prisoners have been killed in the past seven months, more than the number in many recent years. The most recent death occurred Friday — an inmate identified as Javaughn Young, 26, who had been beaten Thursday at the medium-security Maryland Correctional Institution in Jessup, state police said.
Most of the killings have involved violent attacks, with inmates found bludgeoned or stabbed in their cells. As in Pridget's death at the maximum-security Cumberland prison, other inmates are usually suspected in the attacks, police and prison officials say.
Gary Maynard, the state's corrections secretary, said the recent homicide numbers constitute an increase over any similar six-month period since 2009, but are not linked by "any patterns or common circumstances that would indicate any issues related to the operational safety and security of our institutions."
The statistics show just part of the security picture, he said. Since he took over in 2007, the department has made huge strides in combating violence among the more than 20,000 prisoners in Maryland, and violence has been declining, Maynard said.
In the year before he took office, two correctional officers were killed, and another was nearly killed in early 2007, he said. Maynard closed the maximum-security Maryland House of Correction in Jessup and launched efforts to work more closely with law enforcement agencies to share intelligence on gangs — an initiative that improved the department's ability to keep staff members safe and to keep rival inmates separated behind bars, he said.
The communication efforts have paid off, officials said. Serious assaults on inmates are down 47 percent since 2007, from 271 to 144. And serious assaults on prison staff dropped 65 percent over the same period, from 20 to 7. The system is on pace for another decline in assaults this fiscal year, officials said. No officer has been killed since 2006.
Still, homicides have continued to occur, stubbornly bucking other trends. According to data provided by the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, there were four homicides in Maryland prisons in 2012, four in 2011, none in 2010, six in 2009 and three in 2008. Four inmates have died from injuries this year.
Some death penalty supporters have expressed concern that its elimination will remove a deterrent to such killings, but opponents of capital punishment dismiss that idea. O'Malley's office directed questions on the issue to the corrections department.
Maynard said that in four of the recent killings, the victims' cellmates are the suspects. Such attacks are hard to prevent, despite screenings by caseworkers, psychiatric staff and social workers to assess cellmate compatibility and the possibility of assault, he said.
"Generally, where the cellmate is involved, there aren't any gang-related or pre-meditated 'hit'-like circumstances involved," Maynard said in an email. "They are usually spontaneous, when one cellmate becomes angry enough to make a bad decision."
Maryland has 380 prisoners serving life without parole, three of whom received the sentence after committing homicides while behind bars on lesser charges, said Rick Binetti, a corrections department spokesman. Since 2000, three inmates who were already serving life without parole have killed other prisoners, he said.
How Maryland's rate of homicides behind bars compares to those in other state prison systems is not easily determined.
In a Justice Department study of prison deaths nationwide between 2000 and 2009, Maryland's baseline homicide rate per 100,000 prisoners was the second-highest in the country.
However, the study's lead statistician, Margaret Noonan, warned that the data cannot be used to make direct comparisons among states, because the figures are more dependent on state demographics than on prison system performance. For instance, Noonan said, statistics suggest that state systems with more inmates who have committed homicides outside prisons — Maryland has a steady stream from Baltimore and elsewhere — will have more homicide victims behind bars.
What's more, she said, using the data to rank states could give the misleading impression that those atop the rankings are experiencing large numbers of prison killings, which is not the case.
"People seem to think that homicides are an epidemic in correctional facilities, and I hate to break their little hearts, but they're really rare," Noonan said. "Most people who go to prisons don't die. They go to the facility, they serve their time and they get out."
The families of Maryland inmates who have died recently, however, say the killings represent a critical failure on the state's part. Their loved ones, they said, had the right to serve a court-ordered sentence, not face a violent death in a state-run facility.
Pridget's mother acknowledges that he had run into trouble with police. In recent years, he had strayed from W.E.B. DuBois High School and started down a troubled path, she said.
"He was a leader [on the streets]. It wasn't like he was being pulled in," said his sister, Cordedra Scott, 23.
In November 2011, Pridget was found guilty of drug possession with the intent to distribute and was ordered to serve 18 months of a five-year prison term. He also received an 18-month sentence for violating probation on a gun charge, which was to run concurrently.
Pridget's overall record is difficult to assess, in part because court records contain variations of his name. State police have referred to him as Jerod Pridget and said he was 20 at the time of his death, which matches some records. His family provided his full name and gave his age as 19, which matches other records.
In July, Pridget's sentence was extended by a year after he was found guilty of having contraband in his cell, records show. In October, he was accused of assaulting a corrections officer at the Maryland Correctional Training Center in Hagerstown, records show.
At Phyllis Scott's rowhouse in the Madison-Eastend neighborhood, east of Johns Hopkins Hospital and north of Patterson Park, images of Pridget remain. Some reflect more innocent times. In one photo, a young Pridget is lying in the sand and smiling broadly. A framed, poster-size picture of him near the front door reads "Gone But Never Forgotten."
The family has other photos they don't display — of Pridget at Shock Trauma, his head swollen beyond recognition. His eyes are shut. A bandage wraps around one of his ears.
Cordedra Scott took the hospital photos — a difficult task. "It's still hurting me to this day," she said.
Scott said investigators have shared little information about the killing of her son. The family has been told by state police that there is video of the assault but hasn't been allowed to watch it, she said.
"They're telling me that [he] was attacked by another inmate. Prove it to me," she said. "Why hasn't this guy been charged?"
"I don't think we're ever going to get the truth," said Cordedra Scott, who wore a shirt with pictures of her brother, reading "Rest In Peace Rod," "The Lion Of The Den" and "Trouble Man."
Jamaal Pridget, 21, said he has been to prison himself and will be skeptical of whatever investigators tell the family. "For somebody to get beat like that, it would take a period of time," he said, noting that the injuries were limited to his brother's head.
A close relative of Rickey Bailey, 51, who was killed in February at the maximum-security North Branch Correctional Institution in Cumberland, also has questions that she doubts will ever be answered.
She believes that he was killed by gang members and says he asked prison officials for protection. She spoke on condition of anonymity because she fears that members of the gang will come after her. "It's a house of horrors," she said of the prison system.
Bailey was transferred to North Branch just months before his death, she said. At the time, he wrote a letter that she now realizes was his goodbye to her.
"Thinking of you. Be strong ... And wishing you the strength and the courage you'll need to get you through this difficult time. Love and miss you big time. Endless love," it read.
Binetti said the department cannot comment on individual cases involving inmate deaths. But he said there is no evidence that Bailey — who was imprisoned in 1991 for rape, burglary and kidnapping — had requested protection.
The killings of Pridget, Bailey and Young remain under investigation by state police, which by law investigate all homicides at Maryland correctional facilities.
Some say more must be done.
David Rocah, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said he has heard numerous complaints from prisoners that their requests to be separated from cellmates they don't get along with are routinely denied.
Gabriel Eber, staff counsel with the ACLU's National Prison Project, said that when it comes to violence in prisons, the most critical thing for a prison system to do is to take responsibility, learn from mistakes and make changes. "We always want to see a system that takes a step back and takes a broader view and says as a system, 'What could we have done to have prevented this from happening?'"
Phyllis Scott, meanwhile, is concerned about what happened to her son. His last mark on the world was as a donor of organs, which she said five people have received. In that way, her son has given life in his death, she said. But she wanted more.
"I was hoping Rod would be around to give me a grandson," she said.
Scott gasped Friday when she heard that Young, who was serving a sentence for assault and false imprisonment, had been severely beaten at the Jessup prison and was taken to Shock Trauma, circumstances similar to her son's.
"This is ridiculous," she said. "People make mistakes in life, they go to prison for their mistakes, but they're still human beings, they're somebody's kid, they're somebody's brother, they're somebody's father."
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