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Prison guard appeals firing

February 26, 2005|By DAVID DISHNEAU

A correctional officer fired over the strangling of an inmate aboard a state prison bus appealed his dismissal Friday, saying hazy security policies and dim lighting set the stage for the assault on Philip E. Parker Jr.

Robert R. Scott, who was fired Wednesday along with two other officers who were also on the bus, said he saw the suspect in the killing move from his seat behind Parker and sit beside him at one point during the pre-dawn trip from Hagerstown to Baltimore on Feb. 2. Scott said he followed Division of Correction procedures by reporting Kevin G. Johns Jr.'s activity to an officer at the front of the bus and staying put with another officer and their guns inside a protective cage at the rear of the cabin, less than 10 feet from Parker.

When the bus arrived at the maximum-security Supermax prison 30 to 45 minutes later, Parker was dead and there were bloodstains on the chest of Johns' shirt, Scott said.

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Two days after the slaying, the Division of Correction revised its transportation policies to require that Supermax inmates, such as Johns and Parker, be seated alone at the front of the bus, preferably in a wire mesh security cage, according to a document Scott gave to The Associated Press. Under the previous, less specific policy, the front section was reserved for "all inmates identified as security alerts or who require special handling."

The changes ordered Feb. 4 also required the bus cabin to be fully lit during night trips. Scott said some individual spotlights above the seats were broken, preventing him from seeing clearly even after the driver had switched on those lights. Scott said the bus' brightest interior lights were functional but weren't used while the bus was moving.

Another policy change ordered on Feb. 4 allows drivers to pull over and summon outside law enforcement for emergencies other than medical crises or vehicle accidents. Such stops previously were barred due to safety concerns, Scott said.

Scott, 32, a nine-year correctional officer, denied the charges against him, which include being inattentive, insubordinate, breaching security and making a false official statement. He blamed the Division of Correction for "the policies not being clear, not giving us step-by-step direction on what to do in a situation like this."

Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman for the division's parent agency, the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said he couldn't comment on the circumstances of Parker's death, which is still under investigation. Vernarelli acknowledged that Corrections Commissioner Frank C. Sizer Jr. wanted security policies tightened quickly after Parker's death.

"It's something that should never have happened. To get to the bottom of why and how it happened is the goal," Vernarelli said.

It wasn't clear whether the other fired officers, Larry Cooper and Kenyatta Surgeon, have appealed. Scott's appeal is being handled by the Maryland Association of Correctional and Security Employees, one of several unions that claim membership among a portion of the state's correctional officers.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Council 92, represents all correctional officers for collective bargaining purposes, but officers may choose anyone to represent them in administrative appeals, said Sue Esty, legislative director for Council 92. Ron Bailey, the council's executive director, didn't return calls from the AP.

A fourth officer aboard the bus, Earl Generette, was suspended for five days. Driver Charles Gaither was reprimanded.

Parker, 20, was among 35 inmates on the bus in three-piece restraints that included handcuffs and leg irons. The (Baltimore) Sun has reported that an inmate wrote to his family that Parker's attacker managed to loosen his waist chain and slip it around Parker's neck.

Johns, 22, a twice-convicted murderer, had told a judge the day before that he would likely to kill again if he didn't get psychiatric help. Scott said officers on the bus weren't told of Johns' threat or that Parker and three other inmates on the bus had testified a day earlier at Johns' sentencing hearing. If the officers had known, they would have segregated Johns, Scott said.

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