By DAN LAMOTHE, Capital News Service
WASHINGTON (Dec. 19, 2007) - When Gov. Martin O'Malley took office in January, it was with a pledge to reform Maryland's troubled corrections system.
Nearly one year later, violence remains prevalent despite the closure of a notorious prison in March and the implementation of a new program that isolates gang leaders in a maximum-security institution.
State records show that while violence against corrections officers has decreased in 2007, inmate-on-inmate violence continues to be a serious problem, with some kinds of mayhem on the rise.
"At this point, I'm satisfied with some of the things our staff is doing, but we need to be better," said Michael Stouffer, acting commissioner of the Maryland Division of Correction. "It's not something we can fix overnight. It's a process."
A Capital News Service analysis of more than 8,500 Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services records found the following:
-- Serious inmate-on-inmate physical assaults—characterized as assaults without weapons that require serious medical attention, such as stitches or hospitalization—increased from 56 in 2006 to 76 in 2007 through Nov. 25. The numbers mean that with five weeks to go in the year, the attacks have increased statewide by at least 35.7 percent.
-- Serious weapon assaults, such as stabbings, continue to occur at a rate similar to 2006, when 214 inmate-on-inmate attacks occurred (a rate of one every 1.7 days). In 2007, 175 serious inmate-on-inmate weapons attacks occurred through Nov. 25, a rate of one every 1.9 days.
-- While some facilities showed improvement, a few continue to be troubled. An example: The minimum- and medium-security Eastern Correctional Institution on the Eastern Shore recorded 46 serious inmate-on-inmate weapon assaults in 2006 and 38 through Nov. 25 in 2007, or 21.6 percent of the 389 attacks recorded statewide in the last two years. The facility houses about 3,400—12.6 percent—of the state's estimated 27,000 inmates.
-- Three inmates have been killed in 2007, one year after four inmates and two staff members were slain. On May 8, an inmate at the halfway house Dismas House East was shot multiple times while walking with other inmates to a basketball court in Baltimore. On Oct. 8, an inmate was fatally stabbed in a walkway area of the Baltimore Detention Center. Finally, on Nov. 19, an inmate was strangled at the detention center, officials said.
There is some good news: Violence against staff members has fallen since 2006, a year marked by the first two killings of Maryland corrections officers in 23 years.
Fifteen serious physical assaults by inmates on staff occurred this year statewide, a rate of one attack every 21.2 days through Nov. 25. That's down from 2006, when 23 serious assaults occurred, or one attack every 15.9 days, the records show.
The rate of assaults on officers has improved even more since the notorious Maryland House of Correction in Jessup, where one officer was slain in 2006, was closed by O'Malley on March 19. Thirteen serious physical assaults on officers were recorded from March 21-Nov. 21, an improved rate of one every 25.3 days.
"The closing of the House of Correction was a huge improvement for the officers who were in that building," said Patrick Moran, director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents corrections officers. "It was an unsafe environment for all those involved."
Three inmates and one officer were killed at the House of Correction in 2006. The other killings last year included the Jan. 26 shooting of an officer by a Roxbury Correctional Institute inmate in a Hagerstown hospital and the Dec. 9 strangulation of an inmate at the Jessup Correctional Institute.
Moran said the O'Malley administration deserves credit for improving communication in 2007, re-instituting meetings between union leadership, wardens and state officials to discuss safety, staffing shortages and other issues.
But continued inmate-on-inmate violence should still be a concern, even if the safety of corrections officers has improved, said Wendy Hess, an attorney who represents inmates for the nonprofit Public Justice Center in Baltimore.
"I object to the notion that violence in an institution is a given," she said. "I think you need to look for ways to prevent it."
State records show that the rate of inmate-on-inmate weapon assaults has remained virtually the same statewide since the closure of the Maryland House of Correction, with 125 recorded from March 21-Nov.21, or one every two days.
"People talk about the safety of the officers, but there's sometimes indifference to the other side," Hess said.
But Hess and Stephen Meehan, principal counsel for the Prisoner Rights Information System of Maryland Inc., credited the O'Malley administration with thinking creatively to solve problems.
One example: A program that identifies gang leaders and isolates them.
The effort, known formally as the Behavior Management Program, allows officials to move and isolate gang leaders in separate prison levels, leading to its nickname, the "levels" program. The most serious offenders are transferred to North Branch Correctional Institution, a maximum-security facility in Allegany County.
Meehan credited the program with improving safety at maximum-security Jessup Correctional Institution enough to allow congregant prayer for inmates during Ramadan, a Muslim religious holiday that ran from Sept 13-Oct.12.
"It's something that hadn't been done in years because there were concerns about gang activities during the meetings," Meehan said. "If you've got them all in one place, it makes them easier to manage, and it makes the other facilities easier to manage, too."
The plan was put in place statewide about three months ago, Stouffer said. It isolates "anyone who causes organized trouble, covertly or overtly," giving wardens options with leaders who don't perform violent acts, but sometimes order them.
Stouffer said six or seven inmates at the Eastern Correctional Institution were enrolled in the levels program, an attempt to ease tensions that had percolated there in the early part of the year.
"Sometimes we get a mixture of inmates that's not good," Stouffer said. "We'll remove a very small amount of inmates, and a lot of times, we'll have other inmates come to us after the fact and thank us for doing it. It allows for a more socially normal facility."
Meehan said the Eastern Correctional Institution has struggled not only with street gangs like the Bloods and Crips, but with violent prison gangs like the Black Guerilla Family and Dead Man Inc.
"While it is necessary to protect the due process rights of alleged gang leaders, the Division of Correction does need to provide a safe environment for the entire inmate population," Meehan said. "The effect that the gangs have at ECI, we hear about that every week."
Statewide, 164 inmates in the levels program have been sent to North Branch Correctional Institution, said Rick Binetti, a Division of Correction spokesman.
The effort is one of several plans the division has developed to fight the impact of a growing population of incarcerated gang members. Inmates with gang affiliations have increased 45 percent over the last year to about 2,400, nearly 10 percent of the state's inmate population, Stouffer said.
"If gangs are relevant on the streets, they're relevant in the prisons," Stouffer said. "We don't want that kind of activity, and those folks can't be in charge of our facilities."
The corrections system also has struggled to recruit and maintain its officer corps, despite O'Malley adding 128 positions to bring the number of officers statewide to about 8,000.
In fiscal year 2007, which ended June 30, the state hired 1,112 staff members. Already, 404 have either resigned or been terminated, Binetti said.
"People leave because it's a tough job, and a dangerous job," said Moran, the union director. A rank-and-file officer makes between $31,000 and $49,000.
Stouffer said he wasn't sure how many officers the state had retained, but acknowledged it has historically been a problem.
To boost officer retention, the state has started a mentoring program that matches new officers with veterans. The hope is that the veterans will help rookies adjust to the difficulties of the job, Stouffer said.
"We really struggle to get our vacancies filled," he said. "There's competition from other jobs, especially in the center of the state where there are jobs to be had and the economy is doing well. Even in the best of circumstances, people are concerned about working in a corrections facility, and I understand that."