The date of the riot at the Maryland Correctional Institution-Hagerstown in which 44 inmates and 14 officers were injured was incorrectly reported in yesterday's editions of The Sun. The riot occurred on May 25.
The Sun regrets the error.
Inmates at a racially tense Hagerstown prison have claimed in a series of letters obtained by The Sun that the riot that rocked the prison three weeks ago was sparked by the systematic beating of 20 to 30 black inmates by white prison guards several hours earlier.
But Maryland's commissioner of corrections said he is confident that videotapes taken of the "forcible extraction" of as many as 25 inmates from their cells at the Maryland Correctional Institution-Hagerstown the morning of May 26 will vindicate correctional officers of allegations that they used excessive force.
Commissioner Richard A. Lanham Sr. noted that as early as April, MCI-H inmates were threatening some sort of disturbance this spring or summer at the crowded, 60-year-old stone-facade prison. He said inmates are now making accusations of beatings to justify their 2 1/2 -hour rampage, in which 44 inmates and 14 correctional officers were injured and as much as $1.5 million in damage was done.
In general, however, Mr. Lanham and other prison officials said they would not respond to allegations until an investigation by the state police, the Division of Correction and the Washington County state's attorney's office was completed.
Because most of the prison has been "locked down" since the riot, families of inmates, lawyers who represent them, and news reporters have been unable, for the most part, to talk with inmates face to face. Likewise, prison staff members have been reluctant to talk.
But David Fathi, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project in Washington, said ACLU interviews with about 15 MCI-H inmates have convinced him that allegations of beatings may be true.
"What we have heard from inmates is that a couple of hours before the incident, prisoners were taken from their cells and beaten by guards," he said. "The accounts we heard from prisoners are very similar, which leads me to believe that something of that nature did happen."
Eight letters written by four MCI-H inmates to their mothers in Baltimore, to the national headquarters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People or to The Sun also consistently described incidents the night before and the morning of the riot. They alleged that inmates were dragged from their cells and beaten by guards.
"The intention of this letter to you will be to [show] widespread racism and discrimination that exist within the hierarchy of this administration and the chain of command of officers," inmate Leon Sanders wrote in a May 29 letter to the NAACP.
"I saw the captain myself tell his officers to hold up one inmate's head, and he had on his hand what looked like a pair of handcuffs, and he hit that inmate in his face about four or five times, and they dragged him on down the tier. These guys were hollering, 'Please, please stop. You are hurting me,' " he wrote. Sanders added that he was "willing to take a lie detector test to prove what I am saying is true and correct."
Another inmate, who refused to allow his name to be used for fear of retaliation from guards, said in a letter to his mother: "Saturday morning about 4 a.m., a lot of these officers started pulling people out their cells on H-1 lock-up tier and started beating them. They would take them out their cells one by one and handcuff their hands and legs, then drag them down a hall and beat the s--- out of them, and you can hear the guys screaming and hollering, 'Stop. It hurt,' but when they finished beating them they would take them back to their cells f---ed up and bloody. They beat about 30 guys up for no reason at all."
The letters from the four inmates each contend that the riot began when the general prison population heard of the alleged beatings.
Commissioner Lanham cautioned against "total acceptance of allegations" by inmates until the investigation can be completed. He said that 1,000 inmates were involved in the disturbance and that hundreds are being interviewed. The investigation will not be completed for several more weeks, he said.
Prison officials have acknowledged that on the Friday night before the riot, a group of about 12 disciplinary-segregation inmates refused to return to their cells from an exercise yard. An "extraction team" was sent to move them inside, some forcibly. Afterward, three guards were treated at Washington County Hospital Center for minor injuries.
Early the following morning, the same group of inmates refused to hand back breakfast trays delivered to their cells. Five-member extraction teams carrying shields and wearing heavy protective clothing went from cell to cell to remove the trays. Afterward, each inmate also was removed, some forcibly, and taken to a medical officer for a required checkup.
It was this process, Mr. Lanham said, that was videotaped. He said prison policy for the past year has been to document on tape any forcible moving of prisoners.
Unrest at the Hagerstown prison is nothing new. Last May, nearly 600 MCI inmates refused to return to their cells from a prison courtyard for nearly eight hours. In that incident also, an alleged beating was cited by inmates as a cause for the standoff.
"The allegation of guard brutality against prisoners has been an ongoing one, a problem I know the Division of Corrections has been trying to address," said Delegate Howard P. Rawlings, D-Baltimore, vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
Crowding has been a continuing problem at the facility. Many of the inmates are double-celled, as the prison, with a capacity of has been housing around 1,600 inmates recently. Adding to those problems are racial tensions and a cultural clash between the mostly black, city-raised prisoners and their overwhelmingly white, rural guards.
As of June 1, only six of the MCI-H staff of 492 were black, while 73 percent of the prison's 1,627 inmates were black.
Corrections officials say they have made strong efforts for two or three years to recruit minority officers at the prison. "We've had numerous job fairs up there, directed specifically at the minority community," said Sgt. Gregory M. Shipley, Corrections Division spokesman.
However, those efforts have resulted in the hiring of only three additional black officers at MCI-H in the past year. Staffing ratios are nearly identical at the two other Hagerstown prisons.
Officials cite the low minority population in Washington County as their major hurdle. Mr. Lanham said the staffing at prisons tends to reflect the racial makeup of the surrounding community. At the Maryland Penitentiary in majority-black Baltimore, for instance, 302 of 332 officers are black.
Mr. Rawlings said the parochial attitude of prison workers
contributes to the problem. "At Hagerstown, it has almost become a family thing -- close-knit families are essentially established, creating almost working rights to the facility," he said.
Raymond Lushbaugh, a correctional officer at MCI-H who is also chief steward of Local 103 of the Teamsters Union, which represents about 175 officers at the prison, said efforts to recruit and retain blacks have proven futile. "We've had black officers down there," he said, speaking as the union representative.
"We had a former professional football player who was the athletic director. He was arrested on drugs. We've had three or four other black officers down there arrested on drugs or [who] quit altogether, or they just didn't show up for work and were terminated," Mr. Lushbaugh said. "They can't say we haven't tried."
Mr. Fathi said the ACLU will be going to court July 8 to force faster state compliance with certain provisions of a 1987 court order that settled an ACLU lawsuit against the state over prison conditions. While that hearing will address only health and environmental issues, he said the ACLU plans a further investigation of racial tensions there.
The extent of racial fear is evident in the letters from inmates.
The inmate who asked that his name not be used in the newspaper begged in his letter to his mother that she do whatever possible to obtain his transfer to another prison. "I will never get no sleep as long as I'm in this jail because I don't know what's on these white folks' minds."
Elsewhere in his letters, the inmate referred to the white correctional officers as "white inhumanism dogs," and said he and other inmates are "tired of being treated like slaves."
Delegate Timothy F. Maloney, D-Prince George's, chairman of a House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the prison department's budget, said the racial problem at Western Maryland prisons was one reason the state had decided to build its new "Super Max" maximum-security prison in Baltimore. But the state now is planning to build a 2,264-cell prison in neighboring Allegany County, which has a white-to-black ratio almost identical to that of Washington County. "The problem will continue when we go to Allegany County," he warned.