Handling of inmate defended by state

An inmate who died after a violent struggle with correctional staff at a Western Maryland prison last year was handled appropriately and did not appear to be in medical distress after the encounter, according to court papers filed by state lawyers representing the officers.

The papers offer the first detailed account by state officials of events leading to Ifeanyi A. Iko's death by asphyxiation. They were filed by the state attorney general's office in response to a civil suit by Iko's family that seeks $28 million in damages.

The state specifically denied claims that Iko, 51, was dead when officials had an ambulance remove him from the Western Correctional Institution near Cumberland. If he had been declared dead while inside the prison, WCI officials would have been required under correctional department rules to take steps to secure the scene and preserve evidence.

Gary C. Adler, a lawyer representing Iko's family, has contended that removing Iko's body -- but handling him as if he were alive -- was part of a deliberate effort by the prison staff to cover up the circumstances of his death April 30.

In their filing, the state lawyers acknowledged that officers at WCI kept medical personnel from attending to Iko after he was left lying face-down on the floor of a cell, his hands cuffed behind his back and in leg irons.

They wrote that Iko was strong and unpredictable and had a habit of "playing possum" by lying still in his cell, and they said that nurses "were not permitted to enter the cell because of Mr. Iko's past history of dangerous behavior."

On the day of the incident, nurses and officers could see Iko breathing at different times as they looked into the cell and had no reason to suspect anything was wrong, the state's lawyers wrote.

A lieutenant later discovered Iko was not breathing when he entered the cell to check on him more closely, they wrote. In their lawsuit, Iko family members say that he was "discovered cold and without a pulse" about an hour and a half after he had been left lying in the cell.

According to the state's version of the events, correctional officers did not use excessive force on Iko "or act with deliberate indifference" to Iko's medical needs.

"The [officers] were not grossly negligent, nor did they wrongfully cause Mr. Iko's death," the lawyers said in court papers filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt.

On April 30, correctional officers forcibly removed Iko from a cell in the prison's segregation section after he refused to leave voluntarily. State officials have said they wanted to move him from the segregation unit, where problem inmates are confined, to another part of the prison for psychological evaluation.

During the "cell extraction," officers sprayed Iko with three cans of pepper spray and put a mask over his face to prevent spitting or biting, according to court filings.

The medical examiner's office later ruled Iko's death a homicide, saying that it was caused by "chemical irritation of the airways by pepper spray," the placement of the mask over Iko's face and the way he was restrained.

State officials say officers did nothing wrong. They also dispute reports by inmate witnesses, in letters to The Sun, that Iko appeared to be unconscious as officers dragged him from the prison's segregation unit.

"After he was restrained and removed from his cell, Mr. Iko walked under his own power, under escort, to the nurse's room in his housing unit, where he was seen by a nurse," the state's lawyers said in response to the Iko family's suit.

State lawyers said that Iko "did not respond" to the nurse's requests for permission to treat him and "did not appear to have been adversely affected by the pepper spray, and appeared to be in no distress."

The lawyers wrote that Iko was then taken by wheelchair from the nurse's room, across the prison compound, to the special observation housing unit for psychological evaluation.

"The wheelchair was used to expedite the movement of Mr. Iko and for Mr. Iko's comfort, because Mr. Iko's feet were bare and his ankles were in restraints," the state's lawyers wrote.

The description of Iko's condition after he was taken from the cell differs markedly from accounts by inmate witnesses who said he appeared to be unconscious.

One inmate witness described Iko's head swaying loosely, his chest not moving as he was moved out of the segregation unit; another said Iko was limp and motionless even after his arm became wedged in the wheel of the wheelchair as it was pulled up a stairwell -- forcing officers to stop to disentangle it.

Adler, the Iko family's attorney, dismissed the description of events in the state's legal filing as "self-serving." He suggested other evidence contradicts the state's account.

Adler said he is reluctant to address specific assertions because he promised state officials he would not make public video surveillance tapes and other records obtained during the course of legal proceedings. Videotapes are routinely made of cell extractions at prisons, and their aftermath.

"The real question is, if the [officers] did everything right, then why is the state keeping the videotapes and reports from legislators and the press?" Adler said.

Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services Secretary Mary Ann Saar denied requests last fall by The Sun and a legislative oversight committee to review videoapes and reports related to Iko's death.

She noted pending civil litigation and investigations then under way as the reason for not making tapes and records available for public review.

The lawsuit filed by the Iko family alleges violations of U.S. civil rights laws and names Warden Jon P. Galley, Lt. James Shreve and 10 officers as defendants.

Iko originally was sent to prison to serve a three-year sentence on a drug conviction but received an additional 20 years for assaulting a correctional officer in 1992 in an Eastern Shore prison.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun