The Maryland Court of Appeals refused yesterday to keep dozens of former inmates behind bars, forcing corrections officials to free 51 ex-convicts who were rearrested in recent weeks and returned to prison without legal hearings.
The ruling comes after a court opinion last week that called the practice of recalculating the amount of time inmates served and rearresting those already freed "unconstitutional" and inconsistent with the nation's guarantees of "liberty and freedom."
Without elaborating, the appellate court yesterday denied a state request that the former inmates be held until lawyers for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services could appeal last week's ruling, issued by administrative Circuit Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan.
While refusing to keep the former inmates locked up, the Court of Appeals granted a state request that the appeals process be placed on a fast track. The judges scheduled a hearing for June 5.
John Callela was among the first to be freed yesterday. He stepped from the gates of the Maryland Reception, Diagnostic and Classification Center with a brown paper bag containing a Bible and some mail.
"They took 18 days of my life," Callela said, "and they just erased it."
Callela said he has been out of prison since 1995, when he was paroled for a drug charge. He said he was reconditioning cars for a Bel Air auctioneer and preparing to go on vacation when officers knocked on the door of his Highlandtown home on May 1 with a warrant for his arrest.
Because of recent Court of Appeals ruling in a separate case, he was told that prison officials had recalculated the amount of time he received for good behavior and found that he needed to spend more time behind bars. Callela said he lost his job because of the arrest, but he tried to stay optimistic about finding another.
"It won't be hard," he said. "I'm eager."
Attorneys hail ruling
L Lawyers for the former inmates were delighted by the ruling.
"There should be a lot of happy people today," said Eugene J. Yannon, an attorney for a former inmate, Vincent Henderson, who challenged his arrest in Baltimore Circuit Court last week and won his freedom after Kaplan's ruling.
Department spokesman Leonard A. Sipes Jr. said 51 former inmates would be freed by "the close of business" yesterday. Seven other ex-convicts will stay behind bars because they are wanted on other charges.
Sipes said the state planned to cancel warrants for 38 other former inmates who had not yet been arrested. The state also set up hot line numbers for family members and friends of the ex-convicts. The numbers are 410-764-4008 and 410-764-4090.
The statewide arrests were prompted by a Court of Appeals ruling March 9, which said prison officials could not lump sentences of certain inmates together. In 1992, the state increased the amount of time off for good behavior from five days to 10 per month for nonviolent offenders.
Prison officials interpreted the ruling to mean they should recalculate the sentences of former inmates who had been in the system before and after 1992. They also are recalculating the sentences of about 2,000 of the 22,000 men and women behind bars.
Prison officials found that most of the ex-convicts recently released needed to spend more time in prison. They secured 98 warrants, telling arresting officers that the former inmates were wanted for escape.
Trying to do right thing
Robert Gonzalez, freed last year after serving time on a robbery charge, said his Montgomery County apartment was surrounded by SWAT team members on May 1. He said he asked the officers what they wanted.
"They said they had a warrant for escape," Gonzalez recalled yesterday after he was freed from prison. "I said, 'Why are you charging me with escape, when I'm out on mandatory release?' "
After spending nearly three weeks in prison and losing his apartment, Gonzalez was bitter about what happened.
"I did a crime and I did my time," he said. "I'm trying to do the right thing."
Sipes said prison officials also tried to do the right thing. The prison spokesman said numerous people in the prison system and the attorney general's office reviewed the Court of Appeals ruling in Beshears vs. Wickes before deciding that the sentences should be recalculated.
"We understood there were inmates who needed to be recalculated, and many were violent criminals," Sipes said. "If we were going to err, we were going to err on the side of public safety."
Pub Date: 5/19/98