By Kevin Rector
The Baltimore Sun
BALTIMORE — Legislators who help shape criminal justice policy in the state have joined union officials in demanding answers in the stabbing of a Western Maryland corrections officer, after it was revealed prison officials knew of a threat against the officer but didn't warn him.
At the same time, union officials representing corrections officers at the troubled Baltimore City Detention Center — where another assault on two officers occurred Wednesday — said they will join their statewide counterparts in calling for high-ranking corrections officials to resign.
Sen. James "Ed" DeGrange Sr., chair of the Senate public safety subcommittee, and Del. Curt Anderson, chair of the House criminal justice subcommittee, said Wednesday that they want to know who broke with policy and allowed the North Branch Correctional Institution officer to go unwarned. They also want more information on the overall level of security at the Cumberland prison — where 15 officers have been injured while responding to inmate assaults since the end of June.
Both legislators questioned safety at the facility, given that a still-unidentified prisoner was allegedly able to threaten two officers — in a handwritten demand that they be removed from his tier — and then make good on that threat by having one of the officers stabbed days later.
"This is just totally unacceptable to have these types of incidents, especially when you know or are informed that something is going to happen to these officers," said DeGrange, an Anne Arundel County Democrat. "Certainly they can't allow inmates to be dictating who is going to be serving where in a facility, but you should beef up security to make sure these officers are safe and backup is there."
Said Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat: "It raises systemic questions about what the hell is going on in our prison system."
Corrections officials said they are investigating the incident thoroughly, and disciplinary action will follow for any employee found to have contributed to the officer going back to work on the tier without being warned about the threat. According to Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services policy, officers must be made aware of threats to their personal safety before they start their next shift.
The guard who was stabbed has not been identified; he was treated at a hospital and released. The second officer who had been threatened was warned, officials have said.
AFSCME union officials on Tuesday called for the resignations of three corrections officials who direct operations in Western Maryland; corrections officials have not responded to that demand.
Corrections officials said they are investigating Wednesday's incident at the state-run Baltimore jail. Two officers escorting an inmate were assaulted when the man balked at entering a cell and a struggle ensued.
The incident occurred shortly after noon, and both officers were taken to Mercy Medical Center for treatment of minor injuries, said Rick Binetti, a corrections department spokesman.
The attack comes amid fallout from a high-profile federal case accusing 13 corrections officers and nearly as many inmates of operating a drug-smuggling and racketeering scheme out of the jail. Those indicted in the scheme, including ringleader Tavon White, have begun appearing in court — White pleaded guilty to racketeering Tuesday — but troubles at the jail have continued, union officials say.
Hours after Wednesday's assault, local AFSCME officials gathered outside the jail as corrections officers were changing shifts.
Glen Middleton, an AFSCME official representing the officers, said they had asked him to respond publicly to the assaults because they feel unsafe since the federal indictments were handed down.
"They feel their lives are in jeopardy," Middleton said.
Middleton said the latest incident was made worse because the officers involved did not have radios to call for backup. Officers at the jail have also requested vests as protection from stabbings but haven't received them, Middleton said. Many inmates in the section where the assault occurred are facing longer sentences than common for most inmates and are long overdue for transfers to state prisons, Middleton said.
Binetti rejected the union claims. He said one officer involved in the incident had a radio and the other did not because they were in the line of sight of a supervisor's office. There is no shortage of radios, he said, but the jail is switching to a new bandwith and all radios will be new by October.
Officers have been fitted for protective vests, which have already been ordered, Binetti said. And inmates on the tier where the assault occurred may be facing longer prison sentences, but it is not because of a backlog, he said. It is because the tier serves as an intake for inmates who have been sentenced in court, and are awaiting placement in a prison as space allows, he said.
There have been a number of inmate-on-inmate assaults leading up to Wednesday's assault on the officers, a fact that is troubling, Middleton said.
"If those kind [inmate-on-inmate] of assaults happen, then eventually we're going to have officers assaulted, too. History has shown that," he said.
Binetti said that at the Baltimore jail one officer was seriously injured in an assault last fiscal year, and 90 officers sustained less serious injuries. In fiscal year 2012, two officers were seriously injured while 71 suffered less serious injuries. In 2011, 64 officers were less seriously injured, and none were badly injured.
In response to the recent assaults, Middleton said he would follow the example of the AFSCME officials representing North Branch by identifying the officials most responsible for security conditions at the city jail and calling for their resignations.
Neither DeGrange nor Anderson joined the calls by AFSCME officials for resignations within the corrections department. But did they not excuse top officials such as Gov. Martin O'Malley and the corrections secretary, Gary D. Maynard — who have both declined through spokespeople to comment on the stabbing — from answering tough questions.
"It doesn't make the secretary look good, and it doesn't make the governor look good," Anderson said. "If [O'Malley] has further ambitions about whatever office he wants to run for, it would be incumbent on him to get to the bottom of this as soon as possible."
DeGrange said he would ask Maynard about the incident and failures that allowed it to occur.
"I personally will be speaking to Secretary Maynard about this and what he intends to do to rectify the situation," DeGrange said. "We can't have corrections officers at risk. It's a dangerous job as it is, but this just adds to that."
Anderson said whatever is decided, action should be taken soon.
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"Clearly somebody has to be disciplined as a result of a corrections officer almost being killed," he said. "This thing shouldn't drag on. Whether heads will roll or someone is suspended, we have to know what happened."