Seating killer in bus with other inmates violated Md. policy

An inmate who was twice convicted of murder and threatened in court to kill again should not have been seated at the rear of a prison bus where Philip E. Parker Jr. was strangled this month, according to Maryland policy governing the transport of prisoners.

The policy, disclosed yesterday in response to a Maryland Public Information Act request filed by The Sun, says that inmates who are "identified as security risks or who require special handling" are to be "seated in the front compartment of the transport vehicle."

Despite this policy, Kevin G. Johns Jr. -- the inmate who made the threat in court and has emerged as a suspect in Parker's killing, according to law enforcement and other sources -- was seated in the rear section of the bus with Parker.

The bus also was supposed to be checked for defects such as broken interior lights before it went out on the road. But a correctional officer on the bus told union officials that broken interior lights prevented officers on board from seeing that there was anything wrong in the cabin.

The written policies and procedures that were released yesterday detail how correctional officers are supposed to handle the transportation of prisoners. Portions were blacked out by prison officials who cited security concerns for the deletions. Officers who fail to follow procedures can be disciplined.

The Sun requested the records after Parker was found strangled on a prison bus in the pre-dawn hours of Feb. 2. He and Johns were among 35 inmates on the bus traveling from Hagerstown to Baltimore.

Although four correctional officers and a driver were aboard, Parker wasn't found dead until the bus arrived at the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center in Baltimore about 4 a.m.

Correctional division administrators did not respond to specific questions yesterday about why Johns was seated at the rear of the bus.

Not told of threat

However, one of the officers who was on the bus has told union officials that the staff on the bus detail was not informed of Johns' threat and that they would have separated him from other prisoners had they been made aware of it.

Priscilla Doggett, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Division of Correction, said the agency is reviewing transportation procedures in the wake of Parker's death, but she declined to comment further.

"The agency will review all information obtained during the review and determine if any corrective actions are warranted," she said.

Corrections officials have provided little information about what happened on the bus, saying the details will come out once a criminal investigation into Parker's death is completed. Investigators are to present their findings to the Baltimore County state's attorney for review by a grand jury.

Suspect and helper

Although no charges have been filed yet, law enforcement and other sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, have said that Johns is a suspect in Parker's death.

A second prisoner helped by pinning Parker to his seat, according to accounts given to relatives by an inmate who said he was an eyewitness.

A correctional officer on the bus has told union officials that he noticed Johns moving about at one point, shined a flashlight on him and saw blood on him.

But the officer -- one of two seated in a separate, caged area at the very back of the bus -- said broken interior lights kept officers from seeing more clearly whether anything was seriously wrong.

In any event, he told union officials, correctional policy prohibits officers from entering the cabin with prisoners or stopping the bus on the highway for fear a bus could be hijacked or taken over by inmates.

Lack of lights

The documents released yesterday did not detail emergency plans in cases where officers might need to address suspicious or violent incidents among inmates on a moving bus.

However, if the interior lights were broken, that should be detailed in required inspection reports. Transportation procedures call for vehicles to be searched "for any contraband or possible faults in vehicle operation or security before leaving." Any faults are to be noted and reported to supervisors and "under no circumstances is the vehicle to be used without their authorization."

The policies on transporting prisoners also require that officers "properly secure each inmate with restraining equipment ... to include leg irons, handcuffs, waist chains, padlocks and handcuff covers."

Some former inmates and others familiar with the three-piece restraints have questioned how Parker could have been strangled by an inmate in such restraints.

One inmate on the bus who said he witnessed the killing said the attacker sucked in his stomach to loosen his waist chain and used it to strangle the victim.

The inmate, who recounted the grisly scene in letters to relatives, said two people were involved in the killing, with one holding Parker down as the other slipped his loosened "belly chain" over the victim's head and pulled back.

Parker had been in court in Hagerstown testifying about Johns' mental instability the day before he was strangled on the bus. Parker was summoned as a defense witness during a sentencing hearing for Johns in the strangling of a 16-year-old cellmate in January 2004.

Parker testified that Johns needed psychiatric help.

At the same hearing, Johns vowed to kill again if he was not given psychiatric treatment. He wanted to be sent to the Patuxent Institution, a prison that treats inmates with serious mental illness, but that request was rejected.

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