U.S. investigation at Maryland prison predated Iko's death

Probe, civil suits reveal claims of inmate abuse

By Greg Garland and Gus G. Sentementes
Sun Staff

October 10, 2004

Federal authorities, who launched an investigation last month into the death of an inmate at Western Correctional Institution, were already looking into broader allegations of prisoner abuse at the rural Maryland prison, according to records relating to alleged incidents.

The broader inquiry by the U.S. Justice Department focuses on charges that a small group of correctional officers arranged inmate-on-inmate assaults and other types of retaliation against prisoners who wrote complaints or filed lawsuits about their treatment.

Records show that the officers involved were assigned to the Cresaptown prison's segregation unit, the same section of the facility that had housed Ifeanyi A. Iko, whose death April 30 was ruled a homicide by the state medical examiner's office and is being investigated by the FBI.

"The Justice Department does have an investigation under way concerning the Western Correctional Institution," said Eric Holland, a spokesman for the federal agency's civil rights division. "Because it's an ongoing investigation, I cannot comment further."

The department's inquiry into complaints lodged by WCI inmates casts yet another spotlight on conditions at the modern, medium-security facility near Cumberland in Allegany County.

In dozens of letters to The Sun since May, inmates there described rising tensions between them and officers in the segregation unit in the weeks and months before Iko's death. Two days before he died after a violent clash with officers, more than two dozen inmates embarked on a daylong protest in the unit over complaints of lousy food and unfair or abusive treatment from officers.

While federal authorities wouldn't discuss the inmates' complaints, civil lawsuits filed in federal court by three inmates before Iko's death allege a pattern of abuse dating back to 2001 - allegations that the officers and state prison administrators strongly deny.

Among claims spelled out in hundreds of pages of court documents:
 

- An officer allegedly encouraged an inmate to beat up another inmate and stood by for several minutes during the assault in which the handcuffed inmate's head was slammed against the wall of his cell.
 

- A black inmate who was put in a cell with a white supremacist claimed the other inmate beat him over a period of several days, and prison officials ignored his complaints.

The black inmate, 53, complained in a letter to WCI Warden Jon P. Galley: "I am no longer 25 years old and my fighting ability is non-existing. My left leg does not work and my back is hurting from being attack" by younger inmates.
 

- Officers allegedly ganged up on inmates to assault or threaten them for making complaints against officers or for signing statements backing the accounts of other inmates involved in disputes with officers.
 

- To entice inmates to assault certain prisoners whom they disliked, officers allegedly promised them more favorable treatment - such as protection from prison gangs or restoring access to telephones and other privileges. They threatened others, who refused to cooperate, with being exposed as "snitches" or being sent back to prisons where they had enemies they feared would harm them.

Maryland Assistant Attorney General David Kennedy, who represents officers named in the suits, said the claims are untrue. He said that inmates are notorious for concocting stories to cause trouble for prison staff. He noted that the inmates who are alleging wrongdoing by officers were serving time for serious crimes, such as armed robbery, drug dealing and similar felonies.

The fact that three lawsuits by different inmates make similar allegations does not make it more likely that their claims are true, he said. "It could mean a group of inmates doesn't like some particular group of officers, and the only way they see to get back is to make these complaints against these officers," he said.

The three inmates who filed the suits were held in the protective custody wing of WCI's segregation housing unit, which is the part of the prison where inmates are kept separate from the general population in an environment tightly controlled by officers.

Most inmates held in protective custody are usually either "snitches" - inmates who made enemies by informing prison authorities of the activities of other inmates - or former law enforcement officers who needed to be kept apart from the general population for their own protection.

Correctional experts say that inmates who need to be segregated are usually among the most troublesome or dangerous inmates in an institution.

In the case of Iko, the 51-year-old Nigerian immigrant who went to prison on a drug distribution charge and got an increased sentence after attacking a correctional officer at an Eastern Shore prison in 1992.

An internal investigation into his death by the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services found no wrongdoing by WCI officers, and a two-day inquiry by an Allegany County grand jury reached the same conclusion.

Department Secretary Mary Ann Saar told the state Judicial Proceedings committee last month that the FBI notified her office Sept. 3 that the agency was conducting a preliminary investigation of his death. At the hearing, Saar refused to release videotapes or other records related to Iko's death pending the completion of the FBI inquiry.

It was unclear whether that inquiry is separate from the investigation the Justice Department's civil rights division has initiated into the allegations of inmate abuse.

Racial tensions 

At last month's legislative hearing in Annapolis, several legislators voiced concerns about practices at the prison. They also raised questions about reports of racial tensions there. Prison officials say about three-quarters of WCI inmates are African-American and more than 90 percent of prison staff is white.

The inmates' claims of assault or abuse at WCI that allegedly took place between 2001 and 2003 appear to have piqued the interest of the courts, as well as the Justice Department.

Attorneys for the state, for example, have tried but failed to persuade a federal judge to dismiss a suit that was filed in 2001 by Melvin Caldwell, the WCI inmate who was attacked in a cell while handcuffed. The attorneys argued Caldwell's legal claims had no merit. The state does not dispute that the inmate's assault on Caldwell took place in the presence of a correctional officer and after the assailant's handcuff's were removed, while Caldwell remained cuffed.

Instead, the state argued that the two officers involved didn't know that the inmate posed a danger to Caldwell because his name wasn't on Caldwell's "enemy list," according to court filings.

But U.S. District Judge Alexander Williams Jr. noted in a memorandum dated Feb. 11, 2002, that Caldwell had repeatedly warned WCI officials in writing in the weeks before the assault that the officers "were planning to 'set him up' in the very manner that occurred on Sept. 2, 2001."

Kennedy, the assistant attorney general, said that the two officers denied claims of conspiring to have the inmate assault Caldwell.

State lawyers were no more successful with a second attempt later in 2002 to persuade the federal judge to dismiss Caldwell's case.

"There has been an unusual amount of evidence produced by [Caldwell] in this case supporting his allegation that the [officers] actively set up an assault against him and watched passively while the assault took place," Williams wrote in a memorandum dated June 18, 2002.

Caldwell's suit is still in the discovery stage, but another suit, by Norman R. Willis, is scheduled for trial in U.S. District Court in Baltimore later this month.

His complaints of abuse are among those the U.S. Justice Department's Civil Rights Division is reviewing.

In a letter dated Aug. 10, officials with the division notified Willis that the FBI had been asked to "conduct a preliminary investigation" of his complaints.

Willis claims he was targeted for repeated abuse for writing complaints against officers and rejecting their attempts to get him to assault other prisoners at WCI.

"You can be assured that if the evidence shows that there is a prosecutable violation of federal criminal civil rights statutes, appropriate action will be taken, " wrote Karla Dobinski, deputy chief of the criminal section of the agency's civil rights division.

In his suit, Willis alleges that WCI officers promised to protect him from a prison gang known as the Black Guerilla Family if he would assault another inmate. Willis claims that he later became the target of a similar inmate assault after filing a written complaint against an officer.

Willis described one incident early last year when he said he was taken out of his cell for complaining to an officer that inmates on his tier were denied their showers that day. As two officers escorted him off the tier, Willis claims, they punched and kicked him while he was handcuffed from behind.

In sworn statements, the officers denied assaulting Willis. They also disputed claims that they prevented Willis from filing complaints and had refused to allow a prison psychology department staffer to visit Willis in the housing unit.

But in his deposition, Clarence E. Hawkins Jr., a psychology associate at the prison, offered a different version of events.

He said that when he tried to visit Willis in the housing unit cell shortly after the alleged assault, an officer told him the inmate didn't want to see him.

"I thought that was rather odd, because I just felt like Mr. Willis did want to see me. So I told the officer that I wanted to see him," Hawkins said.

When Willis was brought in, Hawkins said, he noticed that one side of his face was bruised and the other side was swollen. In his sworn statement, Hawkins, who did not witness the alleged attack, said Willis told him he had been jumped by officers.

Hawkins said that he didn't write a report about what Willis told him, because the inmate feared further retaliation.

Hawkins, one of the few African-American staffers at WCI, said he had been rebuffed on a different occasion when he tried to intervene on Willis' behalf.

Hawkins said he spoke to an officer about Willis' treatment. That officer then went to Hawkins' boss and told her he was "interfering" in matters that were not his responsibility, he said.

"I don't even get respect, so I can understand a lot of the things Mr. Willis is saying," Hawkins said.

Umoja's lawsuit 

A third lawsuit, filed by Faouly A. Umoja, was settled out of court earlier this year with a $1,000 payment to the inmate. Umoja, a onetime correctional officer and convicted drug dealer, was released from prison in January and lives in East Baltimore.

In an interview, Umoja said he agreed to settle for the small payment because his court-appointed lawyers believed it would be almost impossible to persuade a jury to accept the word of inmate witnesses over correctional officers if the case went to trial.

In his suit, Umoja claims that officers intentionally put him in a cell with an inmate who had a history of attacking others.

The inmate he identified as assaulting him on Sept. 1, 2001, Anthony Midgette, is the same one who is alleged to have assaulted Caldwell the next day at the direction of officers.

Umoja, who is black, claims officers then put him into a cell with another inmate who "is a known white supremacist."

He said that inmate physically assaulted him on a daily basis during the time they shared a cell, from Sept. 3 to Sept. 10, wrapping a shirt around his fist and punching him repeatedly in the back - a form of punishment that left no telltale marks.

Kennedy, the assistant state attorney general, declined to say why the state decided to settle Umoja's case.

However, he noted that only a small sum was paid and the state admitted no liability.

"I don't think that anything Umoja said was true," Kennedy said. "I absolutely don't think the case had any merit."

Legal scholars say it is unusual for inmate lawsuits to be settled out of court with payments to the inmate, or for such suits to proceed far past the early stages of legal proceedings.

"Courts tend to look with great suspicion on any lawsuits filed by prisoners because of the general litigious nature of that population," said Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor who specializes in inmate issues.

"The problem is, some of these cases raise very significant [issues] that are often summarily dismissed," Turley said.

Referring to the Willis case, Turley said: "It is notable that this judge is giving these allegations serious consideration" by setting trial for this month.

Kennedy acknowledged that only a small fraction of inmate lawsuits that get filed ever reach the point of going to trial.

He said one or two a year might get that far in the legal process, and some years there are none that go to jury trial.

All three inmates who filed suits are no longer at WCI. Umoja finished his sentence and was released in January; Caldwell was relocated to a state prison in Utah; and Willis was transferred to Roxbury Correctional Institution in Hagerstown.

Source: The Baltimore Sun


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