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Gangs, contraband spark violence in prisons

August 04, 2007|By ERIN JULIUS

The shooting death of correctional officer Jeffery Alan Wroten in January 2006 was a deadly example of what one warden described as an "upswing of violence" within the prison system.

Wroten was the first Maryland correctional officer killed in the line of duty since 1984, when Herman L. Toulson was stabbed by an inmate at the former Maryland Penitentiary.Another correctional officer was killed on duty on July 25 at the House of Correction in Jessup.

In 2006, there were 105 inmate assaults on staff members working at the three prisons south of Hagerstown, according to data provided by the Maryland Division of Correction.

Eleven of those assaults were classified as serious, meaning the injured required outside medical attention, said Priscilla Doggett, DOC spokeswoman.

There were seven staff member assaults by inmates with weapons, which the DOC classified as "less serious" weapon assaults.

Also last year, there were 11 incidents of "serious" inmate-on-inmate physical assaults and 57 inmate-on-inmate "serious" weapon assaults at the three medium-security prisons at the Roxbury Road complex.

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Many of those interviewed who live or work inside the prisons' walls blamed the violence on gang activity and on the sale of contraband, such as drugs.

"Fights are fueled by gang activity," said Andrew Carbaugh, a correctional officer at the Maryland Correctional Training Center, during an interview in May.

Of the 11 inmate-on-inmate assaults last year, five were at the Roxbury Correctional Institution, five at the Maryland Correctional Institution and one at the Maryland Correctional Training Center, data shows.

Twenty-four of the 57 inmate-on-inmate serious weapon assaults were at MCI.

"This is an environment that you never feel safe in," said Vernell Pearson, an inmate at MCI who has been at the prison since the 1970s, serving a life sentence for second-degree murder and other crimes.

A number of stabbings took place at MCI's inner courtyard, which Pearson described as being "like a coffin without a lid on it."

"If you're not scared a little bit, you're more or less lying."

Jon Galley, acting assistant commissioner of the division's Western Region, acknowledged there is an "increasing threat of gangs inside."

The DOC refers to gangs as "security threat groups" and won't release the number of inmates identified as being members of such groups, Doggett said.

In most situations, gangs divide themselves along racial lines, said Lloyd "Pete" Waters, who retired as MCI warden in 2003.

Historically, gangs were loosely organized, said Galley, whose region includes Washington and Allegany counties.

Gangs in the past aligned themselves in terms of east Baltimore versus west Baltimore and Baltimore versus Washington, D.C., Galley said.

Now, gangs are much more "solidified and organized," he said.

"What you see more and more are these various groups vying for power and control within the inmate population," Galley said.

Inmates in all three Roxbury Road prisons fingered the same street gangs as being responsible for the problems inside. The Bloods, Crips, the white gang Dead Man Inc. and the Black Guerrilla Family are the largest gangs, inmates said.

"If you're not scared a little bit, you're more or less lying," said Glen Munson, a correctional officer at RCI. "Especially now."

Fighting has increased, with inmates wearing gang colors and flashing gang signs. These inmates arm themselves with locks in socks for fights and some of the younger inmates want to make names for themselves, Munson said.

Because of gang loyalties, there's no such thing as a one-on-one fight within the prison walls, said Danny Stormes, 43, on the day of his release from MCTC, where he spent the last seven to eight months of his sentence.

"They are recruiting youngsters into the (gang) system."

Generally, at least four or five people become involved in every fight, he said.

Younger men are especially prone to joining gangs, inmates said.

"They are recruiting youngsters into the (gang) system," said Richard D'Ascenzo, who is serving time at RCI.

D'Ascenzo said it's his opinion that inmates join gangs for protection.

"If they get together as a team, they'll have strength in numbers," he said.

D'Ascenzo, 53, said he doesn't participate in the gang activity. "I'm too old for it to make sense to me," he said.

The average age of MCTC's inmates is 33, younger than at either of the other two state prisons in Washington County, and 71 inmates are 18 years old or younger.

To combat the threat of gangs, wardens focus on sharing information with their staffs and each other to keep up with what's going on.

Some information about gang activity comes from inmates, MCI Warden Nancy Rouse said.

Inmates pass along information, sometimes because they're afraid of other inmates, sometimes because they're doing a good deed and sometimes to distract staff members from their own activities, she said.

Education and vocational programs are compromised by gang activity, Waters said.

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