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Prisons chief vows thorough inquiry

The state prisons commissioner vowed yesterday that the homicide of a 51-year-old inmate at a Western Maryland prison will be thoroughly investigated, even as family members continued to express concerns of a cover-up.

"I don't operate by covering things up," Frank C. Sizer Jr., commissioner of the Maryland Division of Correction, said in a phone interview yesterday. "If it's policy issues that need to be changed, if there are practices that need to be changed, we own up to them. ... I won't cover up anything."

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Ifeanyi A. Iko, a Nigerian immigrant, was found motionless at 4:30 p.m. April 30 in a closely supervised section of the Western Correctional Institution, a medium-security prison in Cresaptown, prison officials have said. After paramedics were summoned, Iko was taken to Sacred Heart Hospital in Cumberland, where he was pronounced dead 40 minutes later, they said.

The state medical examiner's office ruled the death a homicide by asphyxiation. The Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services' internal investigations unit, the Maryland State Police, the Allegany County state's attorney's office and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner are involved in the investigation.

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"Until they complete their investigations, we won't know what the facts are," Sizer said.

Dr. Benny Iko, a brother of the inmate, said yesterday that he doesn't trust the commissioner's assurances.

"I don't believe him," Iko said. "I don't because why is it taking them so long to say anything? They are still not saying anything [in terms of providing details]. That is not the behavior of someone not trying to cover something up. I don't see how the actions of the authorities would lay my fears to rest."

Some legislators have said that the investigation might best be conducted by an independent body. Del. Salima S. Marriott, a Baltimore Democrat, called for an outside investigator, with close oversight by a group such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People or Maryland's Legislative Black Caucus.

State Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat who serves on the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, also said he was troubled by the circumstances of Iko's death and suggested an independent investigation.

"Inmates are wards of the state, and the state's supposed to be caring for them," he said. "We have an obligation to treat prisoners humanely."

In two letters to The Sun, inmates said a prison psychologist approached Iko's cell in the segregation unit, where inmates are kept for disciplinary, administrative or other reasons, and said she wanted to move him to the prison's medical observation area. But Iko refused to comply, and corrections officers sprayed three cans of a chemical substance into his cell, inmates wrote.

Officers dressed in riot gear stormed his cell, beat and subdued Iko, and then restrained him with shackles and handcuffs, according to inmates' accounts. Iko was then brought to the "special observation housing" wing of the prison, where prison officials say he was found motionless at 4:30 p.m. that day.

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Sizer confirmed that Iko was visited by the prison's chief psychologist at his cell the day he died.

"Mr. Iko's behavior was such that the psychologist recommended that he be moved," said Sizer, though he was unable to characterize Iko's behavior. "The psychologist felt that he needed closer attention and that's why we needed to move him up to the [prison] hospital."

He declined to offer more details of Iko's last day, noting the investigation.

No disciplinary actions have been taken against any prison employees or inmates related to Iko's death, though six prison employees were transferred to another part of the facility, a public safety department spokesman said.

Iko went to prison in 1991 to serve a three-year sentence on a drug charge. While at the Eastern Correctional Institution on the Eastern Shore, he stabbed and bit a corrections officer, court records show. Family members said it was an act of self-defense.

He received an additional 20-year sentence for the assault, court records show. The corrections officer was eventually terminated for his role in the abuse of another inmate at ECI.


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