State may face prison lawsuit Justice Dept. claims 'Supermax' inmates' rights are violated; 'Grossly deficient'; Md. prisons chief disputes report, sees 'a misunderstanding'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The U.S. Department of Justice is threatening to sue state officials if they do not correct alleged violations of "Supermax" prison inmates' civil rights, ranging from "grossly deficient" mental health services to virtual seclusion from natural light and fresh air.

The most vivid section of a report by federal investigators describes a now-closed "pink room" at the Baltimore prison -- a filthy, fetid cell where incorrigible inmates languished in isolation, wearing nothing but underwear, handcuffs and leg irons.

Richard A. Lanham Sr., commissioner of the Maryland Division of Correction, strongly disputed the conclusions of the report, which is dated May 1 and was made available yesterday. He said it showed "a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of a super-maximum security facility.

"There is nothing unconstitutional about the way Supermax is operated," he said. "It's run in accordance with the Eighth Amendment, and they get all the basics."

Prison officials closed the "pink room" shortly before the Justice Department investigators visited last summer. They have said it was used rarely, and will not be used again.

The super-maximum security prison -- formally known as the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center -- opened in 1989 to hold up to 288 of the state's most difficult inmates in single cells, with only an hour a day outside a 65-square-foot room. Its population is supposed to be limited to those who are extremely violent, have escaped from other prisons, assaulted staff or inmates, or simply caused too much trouble.

As originally envisioned, the $21 million prison was to have held those inmates only until they calmed down enough to return to a less restrictive environment.

A letter to Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening signed by Assistant U.S. Attorney General Deval L. Patrick, head of the department's civil rights division, alleges a number of deficiencies:

A number of prisoners held as behavior problems were actually mentally ill, and belonged in an altogether different environment. Services for those prisoners were "grossly deficient," and their records were poorly organized, containing "significant discrepancies concerning diagnoses." Treatment consisted almost solely of medication, sometimes with lithium, which placed some inmates "at risk for significant medical problems," the letter said.

Access to medical care was inadequate and violated Division of Correction policy and industry standards.

Instead of being transferred out of the prison based on their behavior, Supermax inmates were caught in a "Catch-22 situation," which led some to be held indefinitely even when they had obeyed prison rules for years.

Prisoners were taken out of their cells only every two or three days, and were never taken outside or exposed to fresh air -- despite a Division of Correction policy entitling inmates to an hour away from their cells each day. Patrick called this practice "unconstitutional, especially given the highly restrictive regimen of daily life at the Maryland Supermax."

Staffing at the prison was inadequate, jeopardizing security and the ability of inmates to take part in the limited recreational opportunities they are allowed.

While investigators found no evidence of a pattern of excessive force by the staff, they continue to receive "a substantial number" of allegations that prisoners are abused out of sight of the prison's video cameras.

The letter, which federal officials made available yesterday, threatens a lawsuit if Maryland officials do not respond within 49 days with specific steps they plan to take to remedy the conditions.

Lanham said that, contrary to the report, prison staff do follow a set of objective guidelines for keeping prisoners at Supermax. "There are inmates who will violate [rules] to stay there," he said. "I'm told they like the solitude. We don't keep them there against their will."

Lanham emphasized that investigators had found no evidence of any excessive force by the staff, something he said he would not tolerate. He said prisoners were screened for mental health problems and that those who had them "were being treated" while at Supermax. And he criticized elements of the report that he considered insignificant, such as complaints that inmates' food was not hot enough and that they had to pay $2 toward medical care.

He said he is meeting with other officials to determine specific responses to the Justice Department's report.

One inmate's mother was glad to see the long-awaited results of the inquiry.

Ida Wright of West Baltimore said her 29-year-old son, Diverel Wright, who she said is serving a 25-year sentence for murder, had been at Supermax for the past five years. Every time he was close to a transfer, she said in an interview, he would be charged with an infraction and have to stay.

Of the investigation, she said: "I'm hoping and praying it will do something to make them change their ways. I know when you do something wrong, and you go to prison, you're not supposed to be living in no luxury hotel. But I don't think they should be treating you like no animal. They should treat you like a human being."

The investigation began when the Maryland Committee for Responsible Corrections Policy, a loosely formed group of citizens interested in prison reform, asked the Justice Department to investigate alleged abuses at the prison. "We hope that this administration will take this report seriously," said Jake Terpstra, a member of the committee.

Justice Department officials attempted to launch an investigation in December 1994. But state officials initially refused to let them into Supermax.

When the department's consultants finally got into the prison in May and June of 1995, "our investigation continued to be met with resistance, causing one of our consultants to note that the tour was unique in terms of its adversarial and confrontational nature," Patrick wrote.

During their visit and through interviews, the investigators learned about the "pink room" that had been closed before their arrival.

The unheated concrete cell with no running water, so named for the color of its walls, was far from calming, according to inmates. Prisoners remained there as long as four days.

"Inmates used a hole in the floor as a toilet," Patrick wrote. "The cell was filthy, covered with old feces and urine. Because hands were chained to waists, inmates were usually forced to urinate or defecate on themselves. Inmates in the pink room could not feed themselves with their hands due to the restraints.

"Supermax must ensure that the pink room or any similar type of isolation cell is never used again at Supermax," Patrick wrote.

"It was used very rarely," Lanham said yesterday. "It was for those inmates who really were the most difficult -- the ones who broke toilets up, who threw feces and urine." When investigators toured Supermax, they found that the "pink room" had been replaced by a series of normal isolation cells. But those cells had heavy metal door closers that presented a suicide risk for the prisoners inside, Patrick wrote.

Pub Date: 5/08/96

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