Death Count Is High At Pr. George's Jail
Saturday, August 16, 2008
Sixteen inmates have died while in custody at the troubled Prince George's County Correctional Center in recent years, nearly half from homicides and suicides, putting the jail's mortality rate above those in many big cities, state and federal records show.
An inmate charged with stealing $60 in groceries from a Giant store died last year after he was struck in the head during an argument over a doughnut. Another, on suicide watch, refused food and water and died from severe dehydration. A third inmate, 24, died of a virus that led to pneumonia.
"My son was perfectly healthy when he went in there," said Paulette Martin of Prince George's, whose son, Semaj E. Martin, had been charged with trying to kill his former girlfriend during a fight. "There is not a day that goes by that this doesn't disturb me. Just because you are incarcerated, doesn't mean you don't deserve medical care."
The safety of inmates at the Prince George's jail has drawn widespread attention since the apparent strangulation of Ronnie L. White, 19, who was found in his cell in June. County, state and federal officials are investigating.
Using federal records and state autopsy reports, The Washington Post tracked a spate of additional deaths at the jail dating to 2000, raising critical questions about the level of violence and the quality of care at the 21-year-old facility. The jail, in Upper Marlboro, has 1,500 inmates, most awaiting trial or serving short-term sentences.
In a typical year, 85 percent of jails nationwide have no deaths, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which tracks inmate mortality rates. A majority of Maryland's estimated 25 jails reported few or no deaths from 2000 through 2005.
During that same period, however, Prince George's reported nine deaths, the third-highest total in the state after Baltimore City, 66 deaths, and Baltimore County, 16 deaths. Baltimore City's facility is 2 1/2 times larger than Prince George's.
Montgomery and Anne Arundel counties, with slightly smaller jails, reported one death and five deaths, respectively. The mortality rate at the Prince George's jail over that period was less than the average for big-city jails but higher than the rate at jails in Atlanta, Tampa, New Orleans and many other major cities.
Since 2005, an additional seven inmates in Prince George's have died, records show, raising the jail's death rate even more. Two of the recent deaths were ruled homicides.
Prince George's County Public Safety Director Vernon Herron would not comment on specific deaths or safety policies, citing the ongoing White investigation. It was unfair to compare the jail with others, he said, adding that his facility processes 20,000 inmates a year, many for violent crimes. Some inmates died in hospitals, he said.
"We are always exploring ways to enhance our operation, which includes keeping our employees and inmates safe," he said in a statement. "Despite our best efforts . . . some inmates are successful in committing suicide in our facility."
Of the 16 deaths since 2000, eight were of natural causes, and one was of an unknown cause, records show. Some were inmates with life-threatening conditions, such as leukemia and enlarged hearts, autopsy reports show. Several died of strokes or heart attacks.