Sunday, October 10, 2004

CRESAPTOWN, Md. (AP) — A federal investigation of prisoner abuse at the Western Correctional Institution was under way before an inmate died at the rural prison, records show.

The FBI began an investigation last month into the April 30 death of Ifeanyi Iko, whose death at the modern, medium-security facility in Allegany County was ruled a homicide by the state medical examiner’s office.

But a broader inquiry by the Justice Department focuses on charges leveled against a small group of correctional officers. It has been charged that the officers had inmates assault prisoners who wrote complaints or filed lawsuits about their treatment.

Records obtained by the Baltimore Sun show the officers reputedly involved were assigned to the Cresaptown prison’s segregation unit, where Iko was housed.

“The Justice Department does have an investigation under way concerning the Western Correctional Institution,” Eric Holland, a spokesman for the federal agency’s civil rights division, told the Sun. “Because it’s an ongoing investigation, I cannot comment further.”

Inmates in the segregation unit have described rising tensions between them and officers in the weeks before Iko’s death. Two days before he died after a violent clash with officers, more than two dozen inmates in the unit staged a daylong protest, partly over complaints of abusive treatment from officers.

Federal authorities wouldn’t discuss the inmates’ complaints, but civil lawsuits filed in federal court by three inmates before Iko’s death charge a pattern of abuse dating back to 2001. State prison officials and officers at the prison strongly deny those claims.

One of the lawsuits says a black inmate was put into a cell with a white supremacist, who then beat him over a period of several days. The black inmate said prison officials ignored his complaints.

Maryland Assistant Attorney General David Kennedy, who represents officers named in the lawsuits, said the claims are untrue. He said inmates often concoct stories to cause trouble for prison staff members.

Correctional specialists say that inmates who need to be segregated are usually among the most troublesome or dangerous inmates in an institution.

Iko, 51, was a Nigerian immigrant sent to prison on a drug distribution charge. He received an increased sentence after attacking a correctional officer at an Eastern Shore prison in 1992.

In an internal investigation of his death, the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services found no wrongdoing by Western Correctional Institution officers. A two-day inquiry by an Allegany County grand jury reached the same conclusion.

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