An autopsy report on a prisoner who died at Western Correctional Institution appears to confirm accounts of inmate witnesses that he was sprayed with a heavy dose of pepper spray, had a "spit-protection mask" placed over his face and was carted away from his cell unconscious and in a wheelchair.
Ifeanyi A. Iko's relatives provided The Sun with a copy of the autopsy last week - the first official report by authorities to detail events surrounding the Nigerian immigrant's death April 30.
But at the same time the autopsy was released, Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said Friday that recent investigations of the death have found that correctional officers acted properly.
"No correctional staff members have been disciplined or transferred, because neither the [internal] investigation nor the grand jury investigation found any criminal wrongdoing or violation of policy," Vernarelli said.
The report by the state medical examiner's office said that a combination of factors resulted in Iko's death at the Western Maryland prison in Allegany County.
The autopsy report says that Iko, 51, died of asphyxia "caused by chemical irritation of the airways by pepper spray, facial mask placement" and the manner in which he was restrained.
Iko was forcibly removed from a cell in WCI's segregation unit, where problem inmates are confined, after he refused to leave voluntarily so that he could be taken to another part of the prison for psychological evaluation.
The state medical examiner's office ruled Iko's death a homicide in May but released no further details of its findings at that time.
No wrongdoing found
An internal investigation by the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services found no wrongdoing by prison staff.
An Allegany County grand jury spent two days last month examining the facts surrounding Iko's death. It concluded there was no criminal wrongdoing but recommended changing certain procedures.
The grand jury suggested that the Division of Correction "develop methods of additional training of ... employees on the risk associated with various forms of restraint up to and including positional asphyxia," which can occur if a restrained inmate is left lying on his stomach and handcuffed behind his back, making it difficult to breathe.
It also called for adopting protocols to better determine the physical condition of inmates while and after they are forcibly removed from a cell.
Vernarelli said the agency is closely studying the grand jury's suggestions. He said that the division had already identified some problem areas before Iko's death and was working to correct them.
WCI staffers have recently been going through training to prevent positional asphyxia.
The account of Iko's death given in the autopsy report, which was drawn in part from documents provided by public safety officers, parallels reports The Sun received from WCI inmates.
The inmate witnesses had said that three cans of pepper spray were used to subdue Iko, far more than prison guidelines called for, and that there was a mask covering his head as he was moved by wheelchair from his cellblock.
The autopsy report does not specify a quantity of pepper spray used but cites the disabling chemical spray as a factor in his death and confirms the use of a mask and a wheelchair.
"A spit-protection mask was placed on his head," the report says. "He was then taken to another facility by a wheelchair while an officer held his legs up by holding to the ankle cuffs."
The report also discusses the way Iko was wrestled into restraints, causing what it referred to as "chest compression" - a factor that contributed to his death.
In an interview, state Chief Medical Examiner David R. Fowler said that happens when "a body has been compressed by a weight, which prevents a person from being able to breathe." One way that can happen is when someone presses his weight down on an individual who is lying on his stomach, Fowler said.
'Blunt force injuries'
The written report says further that there were "blunt force injuries to [Iko's] face, back of the neck, left anterior shoulder and upper and lower extremities" and that he was left in the mask - lying face-down and handcuffed behind his back - once he was put in a cell in the special observation housing unit.
"When he was left in the cell, the officers considered he was alive by observing his chest movements," the autopsy report says. "He was found unresponsive at 4:30 p.m."
The autopsy report gives no indication whether Iko received medical treatment from the time he was forcibly removed from his cell in the segregation unit around 2:30 p.m. until he was discovered unresponsive two hours later.
Vernarelli, the corrections department spokesman, said prison staff followed required procedures.
"Mr. Iko was taken immediately after the cell extraction to the medical area, where he was offered care by contract medical staff," he said. "Our policy calls for inmates to be taken for evaluation by medical personnel following such incidents, and the correctional staff followed this policy."
However, Vernarelli said he did not know what medical treatment, if any, Iko was given after he was brought to the medical area.
"The care he was given, as with every other element of his final day, is part of the investigation," Vernarelli said.
A legislative panel that oversees the corrections department is planning hearings to look further into lingering questions surrounding Iko's death.
Douglas L. Colbert, a University of Maryland law school professor, questioned the thoroughness of the two-day grand jury investigation in Allegany County.
The grand jurors reviewed videotapes and written reports and heard testimony from prison staff. But they did not hear directly from inmate witnesses. Instead, jurors heard tape-recorded interviews of inmates that were done by internal investigators.
Colbert said that wasn't sufficient.
"It's hard to believe an inmate witness would have felt free to say everything he heard or observed because there was no guarantee of protection," Colbert said.
He called for a more open and independent investigation of Iko's death.
"There's no way of knowing if the officers' actions were justified or not because the public is being kept in the dark," Colbert said. "It's all being done in secret, and secrecy does not inspire public confidence."
Iko had been in state prison since 1991, when he began serving a three-year sentence for a drug-distribution charge. The next year, he received an additional 20-year sentence for stabbing and biting a correctional officer in an Eastern Shore prison.
Vernarelli said that Iko had a violent history in the prison system and that correctional officers acted with restraint.
"The institution is run with integrity and professionalism, and it is totally inappropriate to suggest that the staff is operating with anything less than total integrity," he said.