Prison officials say the internal investigators looking into the death of an inmate on a prison bus last week are conducting an independent inquiry, but critics say that using an outside agency would eliminate any hint of bias.

Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, introduced a bill last week that would require the Maryland State Police to investigate deaths that occur within or outside state-operated juvenile and adult correctional facilities unless the deaths are found to result from natural causes.

"It seems to me that if somebody is in the custody of the [Division of Correction], the state police should investigate so there can be no question of bias, or at least we can reduce the questions that can be raised about the completeness and fairness of the investigation," Frosh said.

Frosh said his bill was sparked by the death last year of inmate Ifeanyi A. Iko at Western Correctional Institution in Allegany County after a confrontation with correctional officers.

The investigators leading the inquiry into the death last week of Philip E. Parker Jr., 20, on a bus headed from Hagerstown to the Supermax prison in Baltimore, are part of the Internal Investigation Unit of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. The state police are providing assistance in the investigation.

The internal unit comprises more than two dozen investigators who have broad authority to investigate crimes committed by employees or inmates within the state prison system and other public safety facilities, such as the Patuxent Institution, a mental health facility for convicted offenders.

The investigators have full arrest and investigative powers, and are not accountable to the commissioner of the Division of Correction, who oversees the operations of the state prisons, prison officials said.

Instead, the investigators report to the secretary of public safety, a gubernatorial appointee, and they have the discretion to call upon the state police for investigative assistance.

States typically have internal investigation entities that operate on prison grounds. They vary in the way they handle serious offenses, such as homicides, and to whom they are accountable, said Joe Weedon, spokesman for the American Correctional Association, based in Lanham.

"If it rises to a criminal act, then outside investigators are usually brought in," Weedon said. "Internal affairs people usually handle internal disciplinary issues. ... Some are completely separate from the Department of Corrections; others fall under the direction of the secretary of the department."

In Pennsylvania, a small team of investigators within the Department of Corrections' Office of Professional Responsibility handles cases involving staff members, such as allegations of corruption or wrongdoing. But they do not investigate inmate homicides, said Susan McNaughton, the department spokeswoman.

The security departments of the local institutions, which work with the Pennsylvania State Police, usually handle such cases, she said, adding, "If it rises to a certain level, we'd back off and let the state police handle it."

In Virginia, the Department of Corrections has an internal investigative unit that reports directly to the department's inspector general.

Investigators from the special investigations unit investigate inmate homicides the same way that police investigate civilian killings.

The investigators have arrest powers, protect crime scenes, interview witnesses and gather forensic evidence, said Larry Traylor, a department spokesman. In rare instances, he said, the governor has ordered the state police to review an internal investigation.

"Normally, the state police doesn't get involved," Traylor said. "We do it ourselves."

Maryland's unit was formed in 1985 as a part of the state police. Troopers and correctional officers who had police training staffed the unit. The state police pulled its troopers out of the division in 1995, but the unit remained a part of the department for another year.

It then became a part of the Division of Correction until 1999, when the unit was designated as a separate law enforcement agency and was elevated to the Office of the Secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

Sgt. Rob Moroney, a state police spokesman, said he could not comment on Frosh's bill. In the past, he said, when the state police were directly involved in prison investigations, they focused on internal investigations of personnel and background checks of correctional officers, not inmate crimes. Mark A. Vernarelli, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said the internal investigators often "face daunting obstacles in their investigations, including uncooperative witnesses and difficult crime scene conditions." Results of the unit's criminal investigations are turned over to the local state's attorneys office, which can seek charges, he said.

One former high-level official within the Maryland prison system, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that IIU has a good, tough reputation within the prison system, but they are overwhelmed with work.

"Are they [IIU] independent and are they honest? The answer to those questions is yes. ... But they're totally overwhelmed. Far more goes on [within prisons] than they can ever handle."

In the case of Parker, the five officers on the prison bus were placed on administrative leave during the investigation, but they are not suspects. Prison officials have said that one or more inmate passengers probably killed Parker.

Parker was returning to Supermax after testifying a day earlier in a Hagerstown court about the mental health condition of another inmate, Kevin G. Johns Jr., who recently received a life sentence for killing a 16-year-old inmate at Maryland Correctional Training Center in Hagerstown. Parker testified that Johns needed mental health treatment.

Prison officials won't say whether Johns was on the bus with Parker, but other sources close to the investigation have confirmed that he was. It was not clear whether Johns is a suspect in Parker's death.

Sen. Robert J. Garagiola, a member of the Judiciary Committee, said Frosh's bill, in light of Parker's death, "makes a lot of sense" and called the incident disturbing.

"We want to ensure that we've got an environment where this kind of thing doesn't happen to inmates, whether they're adults or juveniles," the Montgomery County Democrat said.

"This is a very, very serious thing," Garagiola said. "I think that having someone from the outside looking in can not only best ascertain what happened ... but also can look at what other types of controls can be better put in place so that we don't have this incident happening in the future."

Frosh said his bill applies more in the Iko case than in last week's killing, which appears to have been committed by another inmate, not a correctional employee

He said he would feel more comfortable with the state police investigating last week's death but that he doesn't have any reason to think the investigation won't be completed adequately.

Ron Bailey, executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and a former correctional officer, said he supports having state police handle investigations into prisoner deaths.

"I think if it was the state police, you would get a more independent view," he said.

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