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Wroten's death reminds corrections officers of danger

Shooting has caused some to second-guess their career choices

Shooting has caused some to second-guess their career choices

January 25, 2008|By ERIN JULIUS

HAGERSTOWN ? Two years ago today, inmate Brandon T. Morris, taken to Washington County Hospital for a self-inflicted injury, got his hands on Roxbury Correctional Institution Officer Jeffery A. Wroten's gun and shot him in the face.

Morris was convicted Jan. 18 of three counts of first-degree murder and 19 other crimes, many related to his escape from the hospital and armed carjacking of a waiting taxi.

As Wroten's family and prison employees wait to find out Monday if Morris will be sentenced to death for his crime or spend the rest of his life in prison, corrections officials and officers talked about the effect Wroten's violent death had on them personally and on life within the Division of Correction.

Those working inside the prison now are aware that every day they walk through the front gate, their lives are on the line, RCI Capt. Mark Martin said Friday.

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"It's a stark reality they didn't have before," Martin said.

Martin supervised Wroten on the midnight shift at RCI, where Wroten was responsible for the inmates who cleaned the business office and the prison's front lobby.

'We're all we have for each other'

In the aftermath of the shooting death of a correctional officer he described as professional and popular, Martin said he has focused on making sure his officers get home safely every day.

"Since this happened, we realized that we're all we have for each other," he said.

The shooting caused some officers to second-guess their career choices and wonder whether they wanted to continue working in the corrections field, RCI correctional officers said.

Wroten's death was the catalyst for some to retire, Martin said.

Those who remember the shooting want to know more about what happened in Room 5006 at Washington County Hospital when, during the early-morning hours of Jan. 26, 2006, an inmate less than half Wroten's size managed to take possession of his gun.

"To actually know exactly what happened leading up to when he killed Jeff, I don't know if we'll ever know," Lt. Robert L. Shoemaker said Thursday night. "Of course, the officers want to know what happened ... they don't want to be in the same position."

Anything can happen at any time

The death of a fellow officer made his staff more aware and reduced complacency, Warden Roderick Sowers said Friday.

"It is a prison and anything can happen at any time," Sowers said.

All inmates pose a certain level of threat, and all of them must be treated the same, Shoemaker said.

"I know what I'm dealing with," Shoemaker said. "I know what to expect when I go in the door."

After the shooting, prison staff experienced a range of emotions - disbelief, sadness, sorrow, anger and hostility, Sowers said.

After any serious incident, prison officials review DOC policies and procedures, Sowers said.

Following Wroten's death, procedures related to guarding hospitalized inmates were changed, DOC Commissioner John M. Stouffer said Friday afternoon.

Procedure changed after shooting

Before the shooting, one armed officer guarded an inmate. That procedure was revised so that two officers - one armed and one unarmed - guard the inmate, Stouffer said. The unarmed officer is supposed to handle the inmate, he said.

After an inmate escaped from a Laurel, Md., hospital earlier this month, prison officials again reviewed the policy, but no significant changes were made, Stouffer said.

"Sometimes, folks just don't do what they're supposed to do," he said.

Training is another area under review, Stouffer said.

Prison officials likely will have increased weapons training for those correctional officers most likely to go in public with firearms, Stouffer said.

"Being aware of how to protect your weapon is difficult," he said.

Officials trying to find centralized place for care

Prison officials have looked into the possibility of having a secure ward at the new Washington County Hospital when it is built, and at other hospitals throughout the state. Because of complications involved in using state money for such a room in a private entity, a secure ward at Washington County Hospital is not currently on the table, Stouffer said.

Prison officials are trying to find a centralized place where prisoners in need of hospital care may be housed, he said.

Judge Joseph Manck, a retired Anne Arundel County jurist, presided over Morris' trial, which was moved to Howard County Circuit Court at the request of Morris' defense attorneys.

Morris chose to have Manck, and not the jury that convicted him, decide his fate. The sentencing phase of the trial ended Thursday, and Manck is expected to announce his decision Monday at 9:30 a.m.

Sowers said he would be in court to hear the judge's decision. Martin and Shoemaker sat through most of Morris' trial, and both men said they plan to be in court when the sentence is read.

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