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Hospitalized inmates need tighter security

January 31, 2006

When tragedy strikes, whether it's the accidental death of a child or the deliberate shooting of a correctional officer, citizens and officials in charge want two things - an explanation of what took place and a plan to ensure that it won't happen again.

If Division of Correction officials and police know how an inmate allegedly overpowered and shot Jeffery Alan Wroten, a correctional officer guarding a patient at the Washington County Hospital, they haven't revealed it yet.

Once it is known what happened, officials will be in a better position to devise new procedures for supervising hospitalized inmates. We recommend that they go beyond staffing issues and look at creating a more secure area in the hospital for inmate care.

Authorities said that at about 5 a.m. Thursday, 20-year-old inmate Brandon Morris shot Wroten in the face with the officer's weapon, then carjacked a taxi waiting for a fare in front of the hospital. Morris was apprehended about 5:30 a.m. after the cab crashed.

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Hospital and Division of Correction officials have gone back and forth over whether officials guarding inmates should have guns. Although Maj. Priscilla Doggett, a DOC spokesperson, said her agency favors having officers armed, some DOC personnel have told The Herald-Mail they worry about what else might be hit if a weapon were fired.

By Sunday, DOC officials had made what they said was a temporary change in policy. Until further notice, two correctional officers, one of whom will be armed, will guard inmates at the hospital.

Maryland Public Safety Secretary Mary Ann Saar last week said DOC will review procedures, including whether officers should carry guns.

No matter what is decided, we suggest that now, when a new facility is being designed, that DOC and hospital officials look at creating more secure rooms for inmate patients.

Even if an inmate overpowers an officer in the room, the door should be secured with an electronic lock that can be opened only from the outside.

Not treating inmates is not an option. In a July 2003 article in the American Journal of Nursing, authors Marshelle Thobaben and Patricia Biteman noted that the Supreme Court recognized an inmate's constitutional right to health care in 1976.

But that same article also noted that the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 requires that an employer must provide a workplace "free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees."

A thorough examination of procedures for guarding inmates may produce some changes, but the safety of all concerned will likely require a change in the rooms that house hospitalized prisoners, too.

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