Officials say security at prisons to improve; Improvements are part of $39 million program


Maryland corrections officials announced yesterday a series of security improvements at the state's prisons while continuing to deny any major problems in the wake of two escapes this year.

The measures include a higher fence with razor wire at the Maryland Correctional Institution at Jessup (MCIJ), where convicted murderer Gregory L. Lawrence and convicted armed robber Byron L. Smoot fled May 18 and were recaptured two days later.

The state is also installing a more secure fence at the Maryland Correctional Training Center at Hagerstown, where convicted armed robber Raymond E. Dodd escaped July 12. He has not been recaptured.

Public Safety and Correctional Services Secretary Stuart O. Simms and Corrections Commissioner William W. Sondervan maintained that the incidents did not reflect a breakdown in the prison system's security procedures. But they said they wanted to reassure the public that the risk of future escapes is minimal.

"We'll narrow the chances of any escape to the eye of a needle," Simms said.

Officials also said investigators had been unable to substantiate reports that senior correctional officers had ignored warnings that Smoot was planning an escape. Nor did they find any evidence that the inmates had help from within the prison.

"We're absolutely convinced that there was no conspiracy and cover-up in any way," Sondervan said.

Besides asking the legislature for $5.1 million to improve the fence and other perimeter security systems at MCIJ, the new measures include:

Creating an eight-member "audit team" of veteran correctional officers to make comprehensive assessments of security procedures at all state prisons -- including surprise inspections.

Strengthening the prison system's 16-member investigative unit by giving it statewide law enforcement authority and expanding it to 30 officers. Currently the unit can make arrests only on prison grounds. The change will allow the unit to arrest anyone suspected of involvement in prison-related crime anywhere in Maryland.

Installing a new telephone system that will record all inmate phone calls and identify callers with voice recognition technology. The system will be programmed to monitor conversations and flag certain words or phrases that indicate illegal activity.

Adopting an advanced, systemwide identification system -- using fingerprints or other highly individual physical characteristics -- to screen visitors to state prisons. The current system broke down in the May incident when MCIJ officials admitted psychologist Elizabeth L. Feil, now charged with aiding Smoot's escape, even though she had been barred from the nearby Patuxent Institution for inappropriate contact with inmates.

In a news briefing at the Jessup prison complex, Sondervan said the new fence at MCIJ would be equivalent to the perimeter at the maximum-security House of Correction next door, which bristles with multiple coils of razor wire. A similar fence is being installed at the Patuxent Institution.

"This is really state of the art. Fences don't get any better than this," Sondervan said.

The changes are part of a five-year, $39 million program to improve perimeter security at Maryland prisons.

Sondervan said the prison system would modernize its alarm system at MCIJ, though he denied claims by fired officer Nina M. Polley that the alarms that should have alerted her did not go off the night of the escape. The prison chief said the firing was "appropriate."

Thomas S. O'Neill, who represents Polley, said her appeal has been denied and that she plans to sue the state.

Pub Date: 9/21/99

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