A prison inmate who escaped from a Laurel hospital was being supervised by only one correctional officer after his partner took a break and left him alone, police said yesterday.
The state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services is also investigating why Kelvin D. Poke was not wearing handcuffs when he overpowered two officers, took their guns and fled in a stolen vehicle Wednesday, setting off a manhunt that ended with his death seven hours later in a police shootout in a Prince George's County cemetery. State leaders said yesterday that they are "seriously" re-examining whether correctional officers should be armed when standing watch over inmates during hospital visits. This week's incident was the second inmate escape from Laurel Regional Hospital in the past two months and came two years after a correctional officer in Hagerstown was killed by an inmate who snatched his gun.
Officials say two correctional officers are assigned to inmates taken to hospitals and must stay with them at all times: one who is unarmed and stays close to the prisoner, and another who is armed and watching the inmate. Such an arrangement is designed to keep the weapon out of reach of the inmate.
Greg Shipley, a state police spokesman, said yesterday that an officer assigned to watch Poke had "stepped out of the immediate area on a break." Poke then attacked an armed officer and took his .38-caliber pistol.
An officer assigned to another inmate heard the commotion and ran into the room. Poke pointed the gun at the officer's head and stole his weapon, before shooting off his shackles, taking a security guard hostage and bolting down a stairwell.
Rick Binetti, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said he could not discuss whether the correctional officers were in violation and if so, whether they would be reprimanded.
"When things like this happen, the majority of times it's because proper procedures weren't followed," he said. "The department is still actively investigating this incident, and it will take disciplinary action if it is deemed necessary."
Officers do not carry guns inside prisons, and some union officials say that guards should not carry weapons in unsecured facilities such as hospitals. State officials said they want to discuss possible changes.
"We've reached out to the union, and they will be at the table and involved in discussions about policies as it relates to armed [correctional officers]," Binetti said.
Other union leaders believe weapons are necessary to protect correctional officers from inmate attacks. The issue to address, they say, is the unsecured community hospitals. The University of Maryland Medical Center is the only hospital in the state with a secure wing designated for inmates and staffed with corrections officers, and it is used only for emergency visits from inmates in the Baltimore area or for scheduled procedures.
"One of the big problems is that the state has contracted out the medical services of DPSCS without much regard to extra thought regarding a secure environment for these type of individuals," said Bernard W. Ralph Jr., president of the Jessup chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, a union that represents correctional officers. "It is the belief of our employees that perhaps DPSCS should look into sending these felons to more secure facilities for any medical treatment they might need."
But the state union's executive director, Patrick Moran, said his group has been pushing to disarm correctional officers in hospitals since Jeffrey A. Wroten was shot and killed in January 2006 while guarding an inmate at a Washington County hospital.
"The bottom line is, we want the department to have an extensive review of the policy and how it can best be used and come up with a good solution. We can't afford to have these things happen again," Moran said.
To avoid the risk of inmates feigning illness to hatch an escape plot, the prison medical unit and emergency medical responders evaluate inmates before taking them to the nearest hospital, said Richard B. Rosenblatt, the assistant secretary for treatment services.
"Medically, they're just the worst of the worst," Rosenblatt said of inmates, many of whom have not received medical care before their incarceration. "Things go bad, and they need to be in the hospital when things go bad. We cannot be deliberately indifferent to their medical needs."
He said Poke had been prescribed medication for chronic high blood pressure and was suffering from chest pain when he was admitted to Laurel on New Year's Eve.
Poke, 45, was convicted in August 2006 of kidnapping and carjacking, and was serving a sentence of life plus 40 years at the maximum-security Jessup Correctional Institution. He was convicted of robbery in 1995 and 1983.
More details about Poke's escape emerged yesterday. After getting past the corrections officers, Poke grabbed an unarmed security guard and took him down a flight of stairs. He released the guard, then shot into a Toyota Camry idling in front of the hospital. The driver, identified as Johnson A. Isabor, 51, of Laurel, was still hospitalized yesterday.
"I'm OK," he said in a brief phone conversation, before referring a reporter to police.
Poke ditched the Camry, which police found on fire, in Northwest Washington before carjacking a D.C. government Ford Explorer at gunpoint in the same block.
Acting on a tip, four Prince George's County police officers saw the parked Explorer around 3:30 p.m. in the Cedar Hill Cemetery in Suitland. As officers attempted to apprehend Poke, he got out of the vehicle, brandished a handgun and fired at them. They returned fire. Poke was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital. A woman who was in the car with Poke suffered minor injuries. Her identity has not been released.
Yesterday, county police identified the officers as Cpl. Chris Smith, a 19-year veteran; Cpl. James Simms, a 10-year member; and Cpls. Adam Wyatt and David Cheatham, both with eight years of service. According to department policy, they have been placed on administrative leave pending a review of the shooting.