HAGERSTOWN — A U.S. Justice Department report shows Maryland’s rate of state prison homicides — killings by and of inmates — was almost triple the national average from 2001 to 2012. Maryland had 11 such homicides per 100,000 inmates, compared to four per 100,000 nationally. But the number in Maryland has fallen from a high of seven in 2006 to just one last year, according to the federal report and data supplied by the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. Here are key things to know about inmate homicides in Maryland:
Cause for concern
Escalating prison violence made big headlines in the state in the mid-2000s. In 2005, one inmate killed another aboard a prison bus. In 2006, inmates at two prisons killed correctional officers Jeffery Wroten and David McGuinn. Another officer was stabbed in 2007 but survived. The 2007 General Assembly created a task force to study the problem. The panel urged a system-wide approach to reducing gang activity and improving inmate mental health care. Under Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley, who served two terms from 2007 to 2015, the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services increased surveillance of inmates who were targeted because of their gang associations outside of prison, as well as tattoos that indicated gang membership. Inmate rights advocate Stephen Meehan, who helped make prison policy recommendations to the first O’Malley administration, said the high rate of prison violence was related more to gangs than to inmates targeting sex offenders, as in California.
Decline in deaths
Since 2007, homicides in Maryland prisons have averaged 3.3 per year compared with 4.4 in the five preceding years for which records were provided. The actual number of homicides each year since the 2006 peak ranged widely, with five reported in 2009, 2012 and 2013, but the trend is clearly lower. Still, “one lost inmate life is one too many,” said state agency spokesman Gerard Shields.
Closing ‘The Cut’ and cracking down
In 2007, the state closed the troublesome Maryland House of Correction, a 129-year-old, maximum-security prison in Jessup nicknamed “The Cut.” McGuinn was killed there in 2006 and Officer Eduardo Edouazin was stabbed there in 2007. The state moved 840 inmates to other institutions, including two newer, maximum-security facilities near Cumberland. The agency increased its monitoring of gang members and sought to thwart gang activity by finding and confiscating cellphones and other contraband, partly by using phone-sniffing dogs.
Federal indictments of 44 people, including 27 correctional officers, in 2013 in a contraband conspiracy at the state-run Baltimore City Detention Center embarrassed the department but underscored the connection between contraband and prison violence. Meehan said the current practice of sending the most troublesome inmates to the maximum-security North Branch Correctional Institution for close observation has helped keep a lid on violence throughout the system.
No single answer
Controlling violent in-mates is a constant challenge. The nonfatal stabbing of Correctional Officer Herbert Hilliard at North Branch in 2013 prompted accusations from the state workers’ union that prison managers had failed to address serious lapses in security. The prison’s security chief was quickly reassigned. But when the department also fired Warden Bobby Shearin, citing leadership failures that led to safety risks, union leaders defended him. Shearin apparently relied more heavily on inmate lockdowns than the department liked, said spokesman Jeff Pittman of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. “That move is a bitter one, because a lot of people feel like the warden was committed to safety and was using that as tool,” he said. Shields said violence reductions also reflect the department’s commitment to anger-management, mentoring and drug treatment programs.