Three high-level District corrections officials will be suspended without pay for failing to notify superiors and Fairfax County officials during a September riot at the Lorton Reformatory that ended in the shotgun shootings of 13 inmates, D.C. Corrections Director James F. Palmer announced yesterday.
Corrections officers began firing at prisoners at 5:30 p.m. on Sept. 23, yet Mayor Marion Barry and Palmer did not learn about the shooting and the use of tear gas to quell the violence until the next day, according to a report prepared by the D.C. police department's internal affairs divison.
James W. Freeman, assistant corrections director who had monitored the developing outbreak and authorized the use of shotguns at 4:54 p.m., was not apprised by his deputies of the shooting until 10:24 p.m. He went home that night without notifying his superiors, the police investigation concluded.
Palmer announced yesterday that he will suspend Freeman for two days without pay; Salanda Whitfield, administrator of Central Facility, for 15 days without pay, and Douglas W. Stempson, Freeman's executive assistant, for five days without pay.
City personnel regulations allow the men 15 days to appeal their suspensions. Appeals by Freeman and Whitfield would be heard by Herb Reid Sr., legal counsel to the mayor, and Stempson's appeal would be reviewed internally by the corrections department, according to a city official. None of the three could be reached for comment.
The internal affairs report, an executive summary of which was provided to Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman John F. Herrity, gave details of a routine prison transfer gone sour.
The report concluded that the handling of the riot was proper. "The level of force used was consistent with the successful completion of the corrections officers' mission," the police report concluded.
Corrections officers who sought to remove leaders of an inmate strike at the Central Facility industrial shop were blocked by a group of inmates that gathered in the quadrangle area of the prison. The group swelled to 300 by mid-afternoon.
When riot-equipped units, augmented by officers from the other prisons in the Lorton complex in suburban Fairfax County, advanced on the inmates to disperse and disarm them, a melee broke out and inmates were able to isolate a group of corrections officers.
"A large group of inmates armed with prison-made knives or with shanks, bed rails and bricks pursued Acting Maj. (Eugene) Kennedy and several other officers toward the south wall," the report's narrative said. " . . . The group was within three to five feet of overtaking Maj. Kennedy when Maj. Green ordered his shotgun squad to fire at these inmates. A total of 23 of shotgun rounds were fired. This ended the immediate threat to the officers."
Later that night, the report stated, three truckloads of debris, bricks, sticks and pipes were removed from the quadrangle and an adjoining ball field. Five inmates were hospitalized with wounds from the tiny birdshot used by the officers.
The investigation, in addition to highlighting the riot sequence, also detailed what appeared to be a major breakdown of communications, not only between city officials and Fairfax County but within the D.C. Corrections Department itself.
The probe shows that at 4:14 p.m. on the day of the riot, a Lorton officer told Fairfax authorities that: "We have a demonstration which is peaceful . . . Oh, everything at the present time is, is, again is peaceful. We are going to put them back into their dormitories."
At 4:25, the report shows, concerned Lorton officials were ordering officers from the nearby maximum and medium security units to stand by with riot gear and tear gas.
When Fairfax officials were notified at 7:20 p.m. that the prison had been returned to normal, District officials made no mention of violence. In addition, neither Palmer, the corrections department director, nor Freeman, the second-in-command, nor any higher city officials yet knew about the riot.
Barry said in a statement that he ordered Palmer to discipline the three subordinates because of "the seriousness I attach to my commitment to open, timely communications with Fairfax County . . . . "
"I have no patience for top-level administrators who fail to perform in a manner consistent with their positions of trust and responsibility," Barry added.
Under the terms of a June agreement between District and Fairfax County, county government officials are supposed to be notified of prison uprisings immediately.
Herrity, who didn't hear about the riot until a WJLA television reporter told him on Sept. 24, said he would have "preferred if Palmer fired them" but added that he believed the mayor had acted in good faith in ordering the investigation and initiating the disciplinary action.
"I think Barry was as mad as I was," said Herrity, who has been a frequent critic of security lapses at the prison complex.
City administrator Thomas Downs said yesterday that Palmer was not disciplined by the mayor because the corrections director was never in a position to take command of the situation and notify Fairfax County officials. Palmer, who was attending a high-level retreat for Barry administration officials on the day of the riot, did not learn of the violent outbreak until the next morning, Downs said.
Palmer, at Barry's direction, has apologized in writing to Herrity.
The internal affairs investigation identified a lack of coordination between Whitfield and Stempson, the two ranking civilians on the scene, as the the apparent reason why Freeman was not kept informed. Whitfield, as the individual in daily command of the Central Facility, was singled out for failing to notify Fairfax "in the absence of orders from higher authorities."
The factors leading up to the riot received attention in the investigative report as well. In early September, there was unrest among inmates working in the manufacturing shop at the prison and on Sept. 9 inmates walked off their jobs complaining of low pay, poor medical care and bad food.
Corrections officials decided to transfer the strike leaders to federal prisons in order to end the work stoppage, the report said.
On the morning of Sept. 23, inmates Bernard Fernandez and Maurice Young discussed grievances with some other inmates on the ball field. Administrator Whitfield then made the decision to transfer Young, Fernandez, Richard Short, Felix Bouknight and Henry Galloway.
Attempts to escort Short from his dormitory at 12:05 p.m. were obstructed by other inmates but Bouknight was successfully taken into custody. As corrections officers attempted to collar the other transferees, a large group of prisoners began to collect in the quadrangle.
Repeated orders to disperse were ignored through the afternoon and inmates demanded the release of Bouknight. At 3:50, inmates were warned that corrections officers "would have to resort to force," but they remained in the yard.
At 5:10 riot squads entered the area and fired tear gas, triggering the movement of some inmates out of the quadrangle and into the adjoining ball field. It was during this breakup of the massed prisoners that Maj. Kennedy's unit came under attack and the shootings took place.