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Investigation launched in inmate death

Sun Staff

Maryland prison authorities are investigating the death of a 51-year-oldinmate from the Western Correctional Institution in Allegany County who wasfound motionless in his cell April 30, a prison spokesman said yesterday.

Ifeanyi A. Iko, an immigrant from Nigeria, was discovered at 4:30 p.m. by acorrections officer, and prison employees performed cardiopulmonaryresuscitation on him until paramedics arrived and took him to Sacred HeartHospital in Cumberland, said Mark Vernarelli, spokesman for the Department ofPublic Safety and Correctional Services. Iko was taken from the prison at 4:45p.m. and died 25 minutes later at the hospital, he said.

A spokesman for the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, whichoversees the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, said officials wereawaiting autopsy results.

But Iko's death has triggered an investigation by the department's internalinvestigative unit, Vernarelli said. "The state police, who are commonlycalled in to assist in prisoner-death cases, were not requested to help inthis case," he said.

Iko's death surprised and outraged members of his family -- also Nigerianimmigrants -- many of whom live in Maryland and Northern Virginia. On the dayIko died, prison officials made several attempts to notify family members, butwere unsuccessful, Vernarelli said.

Family members didn't learn of Iko's death until nearly two weeks later,when a reporter called a sister and a sister-in-law for information about him.

"There are a great many questions that have not been answered at thispoint," said attorney Bruce L. Marcus, who was retained by Iko's youngerbrother, Rex, who lives in Houston.

"Our client is looking for an explanation on how this unfortunate incidentoccurred, and to the extent that there are persons who are responsible for thedeath of Mr. Iko, our client is hopeful that they will be held legallyaccountable," Marcus said. "At this point, the institution has not providedour client with any substantive evidence, leaving unanswered a myriad ofquestions," Marcus said.

Rex and sister Ada Iko, who lives in Maryland, expressed concern that foulplay was involved in their brother's death.

"I know he wanted to get out of that facility because he didn't feel safethere," said Ada Iko.

Iko was held in a special housing area of the prison where he was checkedby guards every 15 minutes, Vernarelli said. State law does not permit him todisclose an inmate's medical information or housing details at the prison, hesaid.

Vernarelli said the prison agency was awaiting the medical examiner'sfindings, which would likely yield a cause and manner of death. No one in theprison -- inmate or prison employee -- has been singled out as a possiblesuspect or disciplined in connection with Iko's death, Vernarelli said. Hesaid the internal investigation was in the "early stages."

"We have no reason to believe there's any foul play involved," Vernarellisaid. "It's a mystery at this point why he died. Our staff who were workingthe evening this happened were very upset about it."

WCI is a medium-security state prison that opened in 1996 in Cresaptown. Ithouses about 1,600 inmates, who have an average sentence length of 266 months,excluding those serving life sentences, according to the prison's Web page.

Iko first entered the state prison system in 1991 after he was given athree-year sentence in Prince George's County for a drug manufacturing charge,according to Vernarelli and court records.

While housed at the Eastern Correctional Institution in Somerset County,Iko received at least another 20-year sentence for biting a correctionsofficer and stabbing him with a 56-inch-long "shank" in a 1992 incident,according to Vernarelli and court records. The officer survived, he said.

Since entering prison, Iko has been housed in several institutions acrossthe state before ending up at WCI in January, Vernarelli said.

Relatives said Iko came to the United States from Nigeria in 1981, andsettled first in Hyattsville with family. He attended Southeastern Universityin Washington, D.C., but never graduated, they said. But he met his formerwife, Loreen Jones, at the school, and he has two teen-age children with her.They were living together at a house in Silver Spring when he wasincarcerated, Jones said.

"It was such a minor drug charge, that's what makes it so sad," Jonesrecalled yesterday. "It's unfortunate that the guard incident happened." Shesaid Iko characterized that incident as self-defense and had since expressedconcerns for his safety in the prisons.

Jones indicated that she and her children have kept in loose contact withIko over the years, but she was surprised that she and others didn't learn ofhis death sooner.

Vernarelli said that Iko's next-of-kin contact information was minimal andincorrect and that prison officials turned to the visitor log to find andcontact relatives who visited him. The prison chaplain found a brother wholives in Northern Virginia, but when he called the house, a woman on the phonerefused to take a message, he said.

Iko's family members finally were told of Iko's death when a reportercontacted relatives last Thursday evening.

The next day, a sister called the prison to confirm Iko's death, Vernarellisaid.

Vernarelli said prison officials will typically rely on state policeagencies or local law enforcement to make family notification when a prisonerdies, but that request wasn't made in Iko's death.

Sun staff researchers Jean Packard and Sarah Gehring contributed to this article.

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