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State prison officials react to shooting by changing procedures

January 29, 2006|By TIFFANY ARNOLD

tiffanya@herald-mail.com

Following Thursday's shooting of a correctional officer by an inmate, state officials have at least temporarily changed the way inmates are guarded during hospital visits.

Jeffery Alan Wroten, 44, of Martinsburg, W.Va., who was a correctional officer at Roxbury Correctional Institution, was pronounced dead on Friday, state prison officials said Saturday.

Under the new procedure, two correctional officers - one of them armed - will accompany inmates, Maryland Division of Correction spokeswoman Maj. Priscilla Doggett said.

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Doggett would not specify whether the armed or unarmed correctional officer would be in the room with the inmate.

Before, only one correctional officer, who was armed, guarded inmates during hospital stays.

"This is not any indication of any wrongdoing," Doggett said. "This is a measure we would implement because of the incident. This is not a policy change."

According to DOC procedure, inmates' hands and feet are to be restrained by leg irons and handcuffs while they are being taken to the hospital.

Once they're admitted, inmates only need to be restrained to their beds by one method or the other, Doggett said Thursday.

Asked if it was a good idea to only have one officer with an inmate, Lt. John Beair, a Roxbury Correctional Institution alternate public information officer, said it was tough to say. If two officers were present and an inmate got loose, people would say there should have been three officers, and if the policy called for three officers, people would say there should have been four, he said.

Officials have yet to provide specific information on how Brandon Morris, a Roxbury Correctional Institution inmate who was being treated at the hospital, was able to overpower and shoot Wroten, the correctional officer guarding him.

Union leaders, lawmakers and correctional officers called the shooting a tragic wake-up call for more safety.

Critics said DOC policy should require that two officers guard an inmate during hospital stays, although there's no consensus on whether either officer should carry a weapon, said Larry D. Kump, president of the Maryland Classified Employees Association's public safety noncustody employees chapter.

"We're being reactive to a situation," said Capt. David Rizer, who works at the Maryland Correctional Institution-Hagerstown. "If we would have been listened to, this wouldn't have happened,"

Rizer, who used to work at Roxbury, said the news of the shooting was "flat sickening."

"Because I knew it did not have to happen, it did not have to happen," Rizer said. "That's the hardest part for me to deal with."

On Thursday about 5 a.m., Morris seized Wroten's weapon and shot him in the head, DOC officials have said.

Doggett wouldn't say how the inmate was shackled, but said the officer had followed protocol on the day of the shooting.

DOC officials said Morris carjacked a taxi after an unsuccessful attempt at stealing car keys from a hospital visitor. Police followed the taxi, which crashed just over the Pennsylvania state line. Morris still was armed when police apprehended him in Maryland, according to Maryland State Police, who were investigating the shooting and the carjacking.

Morris, 20, was serving an eight-year sentence for assault, robbery with a deadly weapon and handgun violations.

Mike Keifer, a retired correctional officer from the Maryland Correctional Training Center, said the incident could have been avoided had two armed officers been present.

"These are issues we've talked about time and time again," Keifer said. "It seems like we haven't been able to scream loud enough that we need more staff."

Lawmakers called for a review of prison procedures during an unrelated hearing Thursday. State Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, criticized Mary Ann Saar, the head of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, who attended the hearing, for not being in Hagerstown after the shooting.

Saar said Thursday that the office would review the procedure and said the assessment would examine whether having two officers stay at the hospital would have prevented the incident, whether officers should carry guns and whether officers have enough training before transporting inmates.

The shooting has reaffirmed safety concerns for correctional officers, said Kump, a friend and co-worker of Wroten.

"It kind of boggles the common-sense factor," Kump said of the procedure that called for a single officer to guard inmates during hospital stays.

Staff writers Daniel J. Sernovitz and Andrew Schotz contributed to this story.

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