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News Maryland Baltimore Crime Beat

Prison chief replaced at Western Md. prison that saw stabbings

The state corrections department has ousted the warden of a Western Maryland prison who imposed months of restrictions on inmates following a series of attacks on corrections officers.

Warden Bobby Shearin said he was placed on administrative leave this week from the maximum-security North Branch Correctional Institution near Cumberland. His termination is effective Feb. 17.

Shearin said the move surprised him because he believed he was restoring order to the facility after an August attack on an officer that led to the reassignment of the prison's security chief.

The attack, which followed several other injuries to staff, led Shearin to place inmates on lockdown — restricted to their cells with limited showers and opportunities to exercise — for weeks. Officers performed cooking and cleaning duties normally done by prisoners and delivered bagged meals to their cells.

Shearin said he had been gradually lifting those restrictions as part of a "modified operation," but state officials were not satisfied with the pace.

After four years on the job, he said, he was disappointed that he "couldn't finish what I started."

Mark Vernarelli, public information director at the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said the state made the change "in order to move more quickly to restoring the prison to normal operations."

Frank Bishop Jr., a former warden at the Western Correctional Institution in Cumberland, will take over for Shearin. Vernarelli did not say when North Branch would return to normal operations.

Some inmates complained that the continued restrictions were unfair and overbearing, but officials with the union that represents officers praised Shearin's record at the prison.

Patrick Moran, president of AFSCME Maryland Council 3, said prison employees are "puzzled" by Shearin's dismissal.

"Officers that work in that facility are very disappointed in the department's decision to remove the warden," he said. "He works very well with the frontline staff in the very dangerous job they do every day."

The union had been vocal in its disapproval of conditions at the prison last summer, when more than a dozen officers were injured over three months, including one who survived stab wounds to the head and neck.

State corrections officials said senior staff at the prison had failed to notify the officer of threats made by an inmate against him. The officials reassigned the North Branch security chief.

Last summer also saw the retirement of the executive director of the state prison system's northern region, which oversees North Branch.

Shearin said he believes he has been blamed for some of the prison's larger problems.

He said corrections officials laid out complaints about his work including failures in leadership, management and communication. But he said he is responsible for only one of the infractions they outlined: allowing staff to violate dress code by wearing work pants that did not comply with the prison's code.

Vernarelli declined to discuss Shearin's dismissal in detail.

Vernarelli said corrections officials hope that the new leadership can help get North Branch closer to national accreditation, a designation held by two state prisons — including Western, Bishop's former workplace.

Shearin said he would have been open to making changes desired by state officials.

"It would have been nicer to talk to me about it," he said. Instead, he said, "they've been down here directing the new warden."

He said the prison has not had an attack since the August incident. He said most of the complaints from inmates came in the early stages of the lockdown.

The mother of one inmate said the calm at the facility was built on unfair treatment.

Deborah Idrissa, whose son Brian Dutton is an inmate at the facility, said he was limited to one shower and one hour of recreational time a week, deprived of hot meals, forced to eat in his cell and strip-searched at random.

Dutton is serving a life sentence for murder.

"I'm not going to minimize what my son did," Idrissa said. "He is where he needs to be."

But she said that he had nothing to do with the attack on a corrections officer last summer and that he and the others shouldn't be punished for a crime they didn't commit.

"They're on lockdown while being on lockdown," she said. "My son didn't have anything to do with it. You can't throw out a bushel of apples because one was bad."

cmcampbell@baltsun.com

twitter.com/cmcampbell6

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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