State prison officers under investigation

The Baltimore Sun

State prison officials said yesterday they have launched a criminal investigation into allegations that eight correctional officers assaulted several inmates at a maximum-security prison - the second case of possible abuse to emerge at a Western Maryland prison this month.

The officers from the North Branch Correctional Institution in Cumberland have been placed on administrative leave and face possible termination, prison officials said yesterday. The Maryland State Police are leading a criminal inquiry into the case, prison authorities said.

Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said he could not disclose how many inmates say they were abused by officers because that information was part of the investigation.

Two weeks ago, eight officers from Roxbury Correctional Institution, a medium-security prison in Hagerstown, were placed on administrative leave amid allegations that they assaulted an inmate, who had to be hospitalized, prison officials said. One officer was suspended without pay, and all face possible termination, prison authorities said.

State police are also investigating that incident for potential criminal charges, according to prison authorities.

"Just as we will not tolerate violence against our staff, we cannot tolerate excessive force perpetrated by our staff," J. Michael Stouffer, commissioner of the state Division of Correction, said in a statement. "Each allegation will be thoroughly and aggressively pursued in partnership with state police and the state's attorney's office."

Michael O. Twigg, the state's attorney for Allegany County, where North Branch is located, said in an e-mail that his office was involved in the investigation. "We are presently reviewing the information that [investigators] have provided to us," Twigg said.

Vernarelli, the prisons spokesman, said the investigation into the allegations at North Branch emerged as prison authorities and the state police were investigating the case at RCI. But he said investigators believed the two incidents are not related, and that the inmate who was allegedly to have been abused at RCI was not connected with the several inmates who complained of being assaulted by officers at North Branch.

Several of those inmates had been transferred from Roxbury after they were involved in a "disturbance" at that institution March 6, according to prison authorities.

In a letter to The Sun from an inmate who claimed to be assaulted by officers, the inmate stated that he and several others were first beaten at Roxbury and then moved to North Branch, where they received worse beatings from officers.

During one of the beatings, the inmate wrote, he was ordered to put his face against a wall. An officer then jumped off a bunk and kicked him in the head, he alleged.

"There was blood all over the walls, and the officers still continued to hit and kick me," the inmate wrote in a letter dated March 18. The inmate's name was on a list of seven inmates whose complaints of abuse are being investigated, according to information provided to The Sun by a source familiar with the case.

Ronald Smith, a labor relations specialist with the Maryland Classified Employees Association, a union that represents correctional officers, said he first learned of the North Branch investigation from a reporter yesterday.

He said his union is representing one of the eight officers connected with the RCI case and that he was trying to determine if any MCEA members were being accused in the North Branch investigation.

"If there are any members of our union, we will certainly represent them to the best of our ability and do whatever we can for them," Smith said.

Also yesterday, testimony continued in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court in the trial of five Jessup Correctional Institution officers accused of second-degree assault in the July 2006 beating of inmate Bradford Matthews. Prosecutors say the officers used excessive force and may have planted a knife on Matthews, but defense attorneys have argued that the officers acted reasonably to restrain an unruly inmate.

Matthews, 25, was set to testify yesterday, but his appearance was delayed as defense attorneys sought a mistrial after discovering that a posterboard documenting each defendant's alleged role in the attack had been placed in plain view of jurors.

Prosecutor Anne Colt Leitess said the posterboard's placement was inadvertent. Circuit Judge Pamela North denied the defense motion to suspend the trial after jurors reported that they had not read or did not recall what the posterboard said.

Sun reporters Greg Garland and Justin Fenton contributed to this report.

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