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Prison reps have kept info under lock and key

April 14, 2008|By LINDA DUFFIELD

Excerpt from a Tuesday, April 9, memo from Mark Vernarelli, director of public information, Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, to Maryland state prison officials:

"... The media are clamoring, and I have alerted all 3 wardens that both stories (firings and MRSA) are about to hit. ... Please look carefully at the attached document. I know it has a lot of information, but I am trying to ward off follow-up questions and show that we take this seriously."




Vernarelli and other prisons officials have been busy. There is, after all, a lot of news coming out of Maryland's prison system these days, and not much of it is good.

And from my perspective, not much of it is getting out to the public in a timely fashion.

For instance, we learned Tuesday from anonymous sources that a correctional officer at the Maryland Correctional Institution south of Hagerstown had contracted MRSA, a drug-resistant infection that can spread and, in some cases, can be fatal. In a prison, an unchecked MRSA outbreak has the potential to be deadly.

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We tried to confirm the information about the officer's illness for two days. We failed.

Excerpt from the Tuesday, April 9, memo from Vernarelli to prison officials:

"Please note that unless the media have the officer's name, Hopkins will not comment on his condition or treatment."

Because of federal regulations involving privacy, hospitals will not confirm that they have a patient unless we have a name.

Not only did we not have a name, we could not get confirmation of the illness from the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

That was the case even though a press release dated April 8 and listing Vernarelli as the contact confirmed that a correctional officer from MCI-H was hospitalized at Johns Hopkins Hospital with a possible MRSA infection.

We received the press release Thursday, April 10, two days after it appears to have been prepared. We did not get it from prison officials.

Go figure.

On Thursday, we learned the officer's name from an anonymous source, and were able to verify the hospital information. We also received from a source a copy of the aforementioned Vernarelli memo.

And so, after more than two days, we were able to write a story about the illness, not because of state officials who have a duty to the public, but because of concerned members of the public.

We now hear, again from anonymous sources, that at least one other correctional officer might have contracted MRSA. As of Friday, we were unable to confirm that with prison officials. We will keep trying.

Why should you care?

For a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that if the infection spreads, prison workers across the state, and their families, need to know how to protect themselves and what steps their institutions should be taking to protect them and the inmates.

On another subject, we knew as of Friday morning that 25 correctional officers had been fired, 17 from the Roxbury Correctional Institution south of Hagerstown and eight from the North Branch Correctional Institution at Cumberland in Allegany County.

That information came from prison officials as different firings took place. But Friday afternoon, we learned from an American Federation of State, Municipal and County Employees representative that two of the RCI officers had been reinstated - one on Tuesday the other on Wednesday.

When asked about that development, Vernarelli, in an e-mail to reporter Erin Julius, said he wasn't aware of the rehirings, but would get back to her. He did, roughly five hours later.

We have been told by Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services Secretary Gary D. Maynard that the firings were carried out amid allegations of excessive force in early March at the two prisons. Getting details about what the fired officers have been accused of doing has been futile.

"We cannot tolerate excessive force," Maynard has been quoted as saying in releases from his office.

I agree. The use of excessive force should not be condoned. If, for instance, inmates, even those who have caused trouble, are beaten in their cells, those who administered the beatings should not be protected. Brutality should not be tolerated.

But without details of what went on at the two prisons, the implication is that all 25 officers who were fired employed excessive force. Friday's word of the two reinstatements suggest that was not the case.

As is almost always the case, shedding light on situations like those at the prisons probably would solve more problems than it would create. Why do public officials never seem to believe that?

Linda Duffield is city editor of The Herald-Mail. You can reach her at lindad@herald-mail.com.

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