By Debbie Cenziper and Ruben Castaneda
Washington Post Staff Writers
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.
Records show that five inmates committed suicide, including Lawrence P. Collington, 53, who was jailed in 2007 on charges that he killed his wife. According to autopsy records, Collington was put on suicide watch and placed in a locked isolation room on the medical ward, where he was later found unconscious.
He had refused food and water and died of dehydration, according to the autopsy report. The report does not say whether jail officials tried to force-feed Collington.
"It was totally unsettling," said Collington's brother-in-law, Sammy Cole of Prince George's. "We've never gotten any answers."
When Collington's sister-in-law, Carol Cole, learned of his death, she said her first thought was, "Do they sit there and let you die?"
Three other inmates hanged themselves, including Michael W. Sears, 55, who used a rope fashioned from bed sheets and shoelaces; and Rafael G. Escoto, in his early 30s, who attached a sheet to a light fixture. Escoto, jailed on assault and other charges, killed himself the night he was taken into custody. Details on a fifth inmate who committed suicide in 2005, according to federal records, were not available.
It can be difficult for jails to prevent suicides if inmates are determined to take their own lives, said Circuit Court Judge C. Philip Nichols Jr., who was preparing to sentence Sears for murder when he committed suicide.
There are "safeguards you can put in place," Nichols said, but inmates "know there are ways to work around them."
Human rights groups, however, said that with enough staff, training and oversight, jails in most cases can prevent suicides, homicides and accidents.
"The No. 1 responsibility of a prison or jail is to keep people alive," said David Fathi, U.S. program director of the advocacy group Human Rights Watch in New York. "Because these are environments of total control, there is really no excuse for homicides or suicides to occur. But when you add into the mix ingredients like inadequate training and crowding, you get bad outcomes."
The Prince George's jail has 18 isolation cells for inmates at risk of suicide, which, unlike regular cells, have plexiglass walls and cameras to monitor inmates, according to a veteran jail employee. The beds are always full, the employee said, and troubled inmates are frequently moved out of isolation to make room for "someone who's 10 times worse."
For months, correctional officers have complained to county officials of extreme crowding, a rise in gang activity and a lack of officer training and equipment, such as helmets, batons and reliable radios. Bunk beds are crammed into common areas to accommodate overflow. The jail was built for about 1,330 but is often over capacity by about 200 inmates.
County records show that the number of disturbances, emergency responses and inmate assaults have increased, along with the number of times officers have used force to subdue inmates.
Keeping officers has also been a challenge. Almost half of the officers at the jail have been on the job for less than five years, according to the most recent data available, and hiring has not kept up with the increase in inmates.
More than a dozen officers, meanwhile, have had run-ins with the law, including charges of theft, domestic violence and assault; many of them are still on the force.
Curtis Knowles, president of the Prince George's Correctional Officers Association, said last month that there have been virtually no changes at the jail since officers reported the crowding, training and equipment problems to the County Council in January.
"If you keep taking funding, if you keep failing to provide the necessary equipment . . . these problems will always exist," he said in an interview.
White's death is under investigation by the Maryland State Police, the FBI and the Prince George's state's attorney. White, who was charged with killing a police officer, was found dead in his maximum security cell shortly after his arrest.
It was the second homicide at the jail in two years. Last year, Octuan Gant, imprisoned on assault charges, accused inmate Demetri R. Stover of taking a doughnut from a bin under Gant's bed.
Gant, who weighed 285 pounds, slugged the 169-pound Stover in the face with a closed fist, causing him to hit his head on the cement floor, according to court documents. Stover, 46, was taken to the jail's medical unit for observation but was not taken to the hospital for tests, according to the Stover family attorney. Stover was returned to his cell the same evening, the attorney said.
After Stover began convulsing and became unresponsive, he was flown to a hospital in Baltimore, where, after several days of treatment and surgery, he died.
Gant has been charged with manslaughter.
Stover's father, a retired police officer, said the family had expected Stover to return home after a few days in jail. He had been charged with stealing food from a Giant store.
"They should have better care than that," Leroy Stover said.
Stover's family is considering a civil lawsuit against county authorities.
"He didn't have to die. He shouldn't have died. And others were responsible for his death," family attorney Timothy F. Maloney said.
Staff writer Rosalind S. Helderman and staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.