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State prison notification system nearly ready

October 08, 2009|By ERIN JULIUS

HAGERSTOWN -- State prison officials said Thursday a notification system to be used by the prison complex south of Hagerstown in the event of escapes is almost in place.

Maryland Division of Correction officials said they have been refining a communications system for several months.

Executive staff members were trained on the system earlier this week, Division of Correction spokesman Mark Vernarelli said Thursday.

The system, which is set to be announced within three weeks in Hagerstown, involves several forms of communication and will depend on citizens to sign up to receive notifications, Vernarelli said.

Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, in a letter addressed to Division of Correction Commissioner Michael Stouffer, this week pushed for such a system.

"The administration has to step forward and reassure the community that, God forbid, if there is an escape, they will notify and work with the community to ensure public safety," Shank said Thursday.

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The complex's emergency notification system was questioned after convicted murderer Kandelario Garcia-Ramos scaled two fences and escaped from MCI-H on the morning of Jan. 17. He was captured five days later.

Two Maryland Correctional Training Center minimum-security inmates escaped Sept. 4 while working on the grounds. They were captured Sept. 8 in a motel in Ellicott City, Md.

Some residents who live near the prisons questioned at the time of Garcia-Ramos' escape why they didn't know a convicted murderer was on the run.

Prison officials said a siren was sounded to alert people in the surrounding area of the escape. None of those interviewed by The Herald-Mail a few days after the escape said they heard the siren.

The siren was tested and modified in April.

In April, the siren was described by a corrections spokesman as a whistle that is activated by high-pressure steam. Openings allow the whistle to sound to the north, south, east and west.

Shank said he doesn't believe the siren is adequate.

"That does not constitute effective community notification in this era, with high-tech notification systems out there," he said.

In Jessup, Md., where there are seven prisons, there are eight sirens and a hot line phone number, where information such as the escapee's physical description can be recorded.

Residents can call the hot line for information if the siren is sounded. Sirens are tested on Wednesdays and Saturdays, The Herald-Mail reported in January.

Sirens also are used at a Southern Maryland prerelease unit and a Maryland prerelease unit on the Eastern Shore. The Eastern Shore facility also uses a notification system through the local 911 center, which automatically notifies area homes, businesses and churches in an emergency, The Herald-Mail reported.

Shank said Thursday he has heard from about a dozen constituents concerned about the lack of communication in such emergencies.

"There needs to be more dialogue between the prisons and the surrounding community. So far, that dialogue seems to be absent," Shank said.

To that end, Shank in his letter called attention to a provision in state law allowing for Citizens Advisory Committees for the areas that have state correctional facilities.

When he was first elected delegate in 1998, the area had just such an advisory committee, but it went dormant, Shank said.

"It's important that the prison system be a good neighbor with the community," Shank said.

About 30 percent of Maryland's inmates are housed in Washington County.

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