Attack on Md. corrections officer could have been prevented

Inmate who performed attack wrote letter promising "body harm will be inflicted ASAP"

By Kevin Rector
The Baltimore Sun

BALTIMORE — The inmate's handwritten letter, addressed to a tier captain in the North Branch Correctional Institution in Cumberland, was clear: Remove two specific corrections officers from the housing unit, or they would be violently attacked.

"I will not let you know when your time has run out," wrote the inmate, who claimed to control the marching orders of other prisoners in the maximum-security state prison.

By Monday, several days after the letter was sent, officials had warned one of the officers named in the letter, but not the other — a violation of corrections department policy, officials said.

About 8:40 a.m. Monday, authorities say, the unwarned officer was stabbed multiple times in the neck and head with a homemade weapon, allegedly by an inmate serving a life sentence for murder.

The officer was rushed to an area hospital with what officials say were non-life-threatening injuries.

The Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services is now investigating the incident "to ascertain why the notification of the threat was not made to the officer," department spokesman Rick Binetti said.

"Appropriate disciplinary action will be taken if staff are found to have violated the notification process," Binetti said.

Union officials say that's not enough.

The stabbing, in which two other officers suffered less severe injuries, was the latest in a string of inmate-on-officer attacks at the North Branch facility this summer. Patrick Moran, president of AFSCME Maryland, said 15 officers have been assaulted since the end of June.

Three North Branch inmates have been killed in the past year.

Moran said corrections officials have ordered few changes in response to the violence — and now they must be held accountable.

During a news conference Tuesday, Moran called the failure to warn the officer of the active threat "unconscionable." With other union officials, he called for the immediate resignation of three high-level department officials: J. Michael Stouffer, the deputy secretary of operations; Jon P. Galley, the executive director of northern regional operations; and Rodrick R. Sowers, director of corrections in the northern region.

"They knew there was going to be an assault, they had the intel .... and did nothing," Moran said as several current and retired corrections officers stood behind him outside a corrections department building in Baltimore.

"They need to do the right thing. They need to step aside," Moran said.

Corrections officials did not respond to the calls for resignations. Galley declined to comment, and Stouffer and Sowers could not be reached.

The demands come at a time of increased scrutiny for the corrections department. Officials pledged reforms after federal prosecutors alleged that inmates at the Baltimore City Detention Center associated with the Black Guerrilla Family gang conspired with 13 corrections officers to smuggle in drugs, cellphones and other contraband.

Black Guerrilla Family leader Tavon White, the ringleader of the scheme, pleaded guilty Tuesday to racketeering.

Attention has shifted west as the number of assaults on staff at North Branch has spiked.

According to Jeff Grabenstein, president of AFSCME Local 898 at North Branch and a corrections employee there, the problems plaguing the Baltimore jail and the Cumberland prison are related.

The transfer of some inmates from Baltimore to North Branch after the federal indictment was handed down in April, he said, "brought some trouble along with it."

Retired corrections officers at the news conference said inmates who are used to receiving lax oversight from corrupt officers in one facility might be more inclined to resent strict treatment in another.

"They don't like the fact that the officers do their job, don't let them break the rules," said former Lt. Steve Berger, who worked in another Western Maryland correctional facility. "Officers do get targeted because they do their jobs."

Binetti said five detainees from the Baltimore jail were transferred to North Branch, including White, though he was there only a short time.

Based on intelligence assessments, Binetti said, the other four transferred detainees are not considered "problematic."

Union officials gave reporters copies of the letter in which the inmate threatened the two officers at North Branch. They did not identify the inmate or the charges for which he is incarcerated.

The inmate did not explain his problem with the officers. He wrote to the tier captain as an equal.

"I come to you with much respect as we both are men of power over our troops," he wrote. He said he is "not the main man" for his organization, which he did not name, but said he does run security.

He also wrote that his "troops" would continue to target both officers — indicating that the officer who was not attacked could still be in danger.

But "I don't think you would be that stupid to put one of them in the line of fire again to get punished," the inmate wrote. "That wouldn't be a good chess move."

The prison remains volatile, Grabenstein said, and incidents such as the stabbing have affected corrections officers.

"It's dropped morale to an all-time low," he said, "which in itself creates more danger." He said officers who are "not on top of their game at all times" make themselves vulnerable.

Moran and Grabenstein said the department has taken some measures to address the violence.

Since the end of June, Binetti said, the North Branch facility "has either been on lockdown status, employed sectional or tier lockdowns, or utilized modified inmate movement schedules and activities, as necessary."

The prison has an estimated average daily prisoner population of about 1,400.

The department is reducing the size of recreation groups among prisoners, Binetti said.

But union officials said more must be done to limit the ability of maximum-security inmates to assault other inmates and guards.

Moran said Corrections Secretary Gary D. Maynard and other department leaders have to do a better job listening to "front-line staff" about ways to improve security, but didn't provide specifics.

Binetti said Maynard was at North Branch on Tuesday. He declined to make him available for an interview.

Binetti rejected assertions by Moran that the department has been using different standards for recording assaults in recent years to make the totals seem lower.

Binetti said the department has been using the same national standards since 2003.

The department's data show serious assaults on officers have trended down from 20 in fiscal year 2007 to 8 in fiscal year 2013. No officer has been killed since 2006.

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