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Md. prison inquiry is widening

The Baltimore Sun

With 25 correctional officers facing termination or already fired, a probe that began last month into whether they beat inmates at two Western Maryland prisons has grown into one of the most extensive investigations in years for the state penal system.

Detectives are working with state police and local prosecutors investigating several encounters between inmates and officers in early March at the Roxbury Correctional Institution in Hagerstown and the North Branch Correctional Institution in Cumberland. So far, 17 officers from RCI have been fired and eight officers from North Branch are on paid administrative leave, prison officials said.

Gary D. Maynard, the state secretary of public safety and correctional services, said in an interview yesterday that the discipline involves an "unusually high number of officers," but not all were involved in an assault. He said some were believed to have lied to investigators, covered up for colleagues or failed to intervene.

Of the 8,000 correctional officers guarding 23,000 inmates in Maryland, Maynard said, "99.9 percent of them are hard-working and dedicated, and follow policy and state law."

Labor unions representing the correctional officers say the state has moved too quickly to fire officers in a broad sweep and have vowed to appeal the terminations.

"We believe this investigation is being pursued in a reckless fashion, and as a result, morale has suffered," said Joe Lawrence, spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which will represent the accused officers. Lawrence said that the prison system's internal investigation was marred by "slipshod tactics" and that investigators "railroaded" officers. Mark Vernarelli, a state prison spokesman, called the investigation "one of the biggest" in recent history and said the decisions to fire employees were reviewed at the highest levels. He said he had no new information to release about the investigation, which is focusing on whether the incidents at RCI and North Branch are connected.

Maynard said he views it "as two separate incidents" and that it "would be news to me if there is information tying the two together."

But a source close to the investigation, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly about the case, said the incidents at the two institutions appear to be linked.

Tensions flared at RCI, a medium-security prison, on March 6 after a member of a prison gang called Dead Man Inc. was being escorted through the prison yard and struggled with a correctional officer, the source said. As correctional officers rushed to help, other gang members joined in and a brief fight ensued, the source said.

Afterward, several inmates were taken to another part of the prison and were beaten by officers, the source said. They were then transferred to North Branch, a maximum-security prison, and beaten more severely, the source said.

About two days later, another inmate at RCI was found to have serious injuries from a beating in a separate incident. The inmate had been involved in an attempted assault on an officer earlier in the day, the source said.

Investigators believe gang members ordered his attack in an attempt to retaliate for the March 6 incident, the source said.

When a prison official discovered the inmate's injuries, the man was hospitalized and an internal investigation was launched, the source said.

Much of what the source said was corroborated by an inmate who sent a letter to The Sun on March 18. The inmate alleged that he and six other inmates were beaten badly at RCI. The inmate described being handcuffed and beaten by four officers at a time and then being taken to another part of RCI where he was "punched, kicked, shoved, choked, and even spit on" by other officers. The beatings continued when a new shift of officers came on duty, the inmate said.

Then, he and five other inmates were transferred to North Branch, where they were subjected to beatings that were "10 times worse," he wrote.

State prison officials have moved to fire or place officers on leave in connection with the investigation over the past two weeks. On March 27, eight officers at North Branch were placed on administrative leave. On Friday, nine officers from RCI were fired, and eight more were terminated Tuesday.

Law enforcement officials are pursuing criminal cases against an unspecified number of officers, prison authorities said.

But prosecuting correctional officers for alleged abuses inside prisons is difficult. This month, five correctional officers were acquitted of charges that they beat an inmate in July 2006 at the now-closed Maryland House of Correction in Jessup, where Officer David W. McGuinn had been fatally stabbed a day earlier.

And in another case, inmate Brandon T. Morris was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole for shooting and killing correctional officer Jeffery A. Wroten, who was guarding him at a Western Maryland hospital two years ago.

"Emotions are running high due to the murder of Officer Wroten and the fact that Brandon got a life sentence and not the death penalty," said William W. Sondervan, who ran Maryland prisons from 1999 to 2003 and is now director of the criminal justice, forensic investigations and legal studies department at the University of Maryland University College.

"Memories run long," Sondervan said.

Sun reporter Julie Bykowicz contributed to his article.

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