Nineteen inmates -- most of them serving life terms for murder -- were removed from the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup and three correctional officers flunked preliminary drug tests in a surprise sweep of the maximum-security prison that began before dawn yesterday.
Nearly 300 correctional officers, state police and police dog teams moved into the prison complex before dawn in what a prison system spokesman termed a combination crackdown and training exercise financed in part by a $475,000 federal grant.
George B. Brosan, deputy secretary of the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, and William W. Sondervan, acting state corrections commissioner, said the prison's high rate of drug use found in random testing prompted the exercise. Tests had shown 13 percent of the prison's 1,200 inmates testing positive for drug use, compared with 3.7 percent of prisoners statewide.
"We wanted to send a loud and clear message that the Maryland Department of Corrections is not going to tolerate drugs in prison," Sondervan said as the first portion of the search ended after a sweep of the large dormitory rooms housing about 500 inmates.
A small number of homemade knives, called "shanks," prison-made alcohol and hypodermic needles were recovered, but officials speculated that most illegal drugs were flushed down toilets as word of the operation spread through the prison.
Another contingent of 150 correctional officers from around the state was brought in about 2 p.m. to search individual cells -- an operation that was to last into the night.
The 19 inmates taken from the prison were thought to "have too much influence" at Jessup, Brosan said.
Although none was charged criminally, Brosan said investigations showed that they "possibly control some illicit activities within the prison." Some worked together and helped run an underground economy inside and maybe outside the prison, officials said.
They were transferred to the state's Supermax prison -- the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center in Baltimore's downtown prison complex.
The three correctional officers failed testing conducted with an ion scanner -- a small, portable device that collects dust from clothing and skin and tests it for drugs. The officers were reassigned to administrative duty while authorities awaited results from subsequent mandatory urinalysis tests, and could be fired if they fail, Sondervan said.
Leonard A. Sipes Jr., spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said correctional officers at Jessup appeared happy about the action, "smiling, giving high-fives and back slaps" to the officers moving through.
"I'm convinced the vast majority of inmates are grateful," said Sipes, because the sweep will reduce the danger of injury from weapons or fights over power or drugs.
Those participating in the sweep at Jessup were assembled at staging points across the state after being called by supervisors. They were told what they were going to do and what equipment to bring -- but not where it would take place. Not even the bus drivers were told of the destination until it was time to depart, officials said.
The officers, backed by state police, drug-sniffing dogs and -- as a precaution -- Anne Arundel County fire and rescue personnel -- arrived at the prison through a rear entrance about 7 a.m.
The federal grant was provided by the Office of National Drug Control Policy and paid for video cameras, night-vision devices, cellular phones and drug-sniffing dogs. Some of the money will be used to provide drug treatment for inmates; officials say that 80 percent of the state's inmates were addicts when they entered prison.
Officials noted that $400,000 worth of high-tech equipment donated to the prison system by Bell Atlantic was used in recent months to tap inmate telephone calls and identify the speakers by voiceprint.
Pub Date: 2/14/99