Pr. George's Jail Inmates Disable Locks, Attack Guards

By Ruben Castaneda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 6, 2009

A band of inmates at the Prince George's County jail, furious at a lockdown that kept them from watching Sunday's Super Bowl, disabled the locks on their cell doors and stormed out to assault their guards.

In an apparently coordinated attack, at least eight inmates burst from cells on a second-floor tier, their faces covered with bedsheets, and threw trash cans and chairs at the officers on the ground level, said Lt. Curtis Knowles, president of the Prince George's Correctional Officers Association.

The two guards quickly summoned reinforcements, and the disturbance was quelled without serious injury. But the incident underscored concerns about the integrity of cell locks in the jail.

Knowles said the union has warned jail officials for at least two years that cell locks throughout the Upper Marlboro jail can be defeated with deodorant can tops or plastic utensils and need to be replaced.

"Is it going to cost money? Yes. Is it going to save lives? Yes," Knowles said. "Those locks didn't all just go bad at the same time."

The disabling of the locks is the latest in a series of incidents at the jail in the past 13 months.

Authorities are investigating the death of Ronnie L. White, an inmate found dead of asphyxiation in his cell in June, less than 48 hours after he was charged with killing a county police officer. The state medical examiner ruled the death a homicide.

That month, Corrections Director Alfred J. McMurray Sr. was fired two days after officials discovered that four handguns were missing from the jail's armory. The handguns have not been recovered.

Last March, three jail officers were suspended during an investigation into allegations that guards conspired to smuggle cellphones to inmates. One of the suspended guards was suspected of being a member of the Bloods street gang, according to police charging documents.

Vernon Herron, the county's director of public safety, said he thinks the cell lock problem is limited to the unit where Sunday's disturbance occurred. He said the locks for the 48 cells in that unit, where inmates accused of violent crimes are housed, will be inspected and replaced if necessary.

"We understand how critical it is to have these locks intact," Herron said.

Herron disputed Knowles's assertion that jail officers have previously warned about problems with cell locks, saying he had not heard that it was a widespread problem before Sunday's incident. Knowles said inmates disabled the locks on six two-person cells; officials put the number at four.

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