- The Washington Times - Friday, January 4, 2008

Maryland prison officials said yesterday that they will review policies of assigning armed guards to inmates taken to hospitals, after an incident this week and two others in the past two years in which an inmate took an officer’s gun and fled.

“We are reviewing every element, policy and procedure in this case,” said Mark Vernarelli, spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. “It’s a bit too early to say whether changes will be necessary.”

Rick Binetti, another department spokesman, said officials hope to discuss the issue next week with correctional officer union leaders, some of whom say it’s dangerous to bring firearms into community hospitals.

“It’s obviously something the department is concerned about,” Mr. Binetti said. “We’re going to take a long look at that in consultation with the unions and try to get as much advice from all parties as to what the right policy should be.”

The most recent incident occurred Wednesday morning at Laurel Regional Hospital when inmate Kelvin Poke, 45, escaped by overpowering several guards, grabbing two of their guns and carjacking two vehicles. He led police on a seven-hour manhunt through the District, then back into Prince George’s County, where he was killed at about 3:30 p.m. during a shootout with police at the Cedar Hill Cemetery in Suitland.

Poke, 6 feet 3 inches tall and 235 pounds, was serving a life sentence at Jessup Correctional Institution after being convicted in 2006 of kidnapping, carjacking and robbery. He had been taken to the hospital Monday morning after complaining of chest pains. Poke was accompanied by two correctional officers and was wearing leg shackles but no handcuffs — as permitted.

At about 8 a.m. Wednesday, on the hospital’s fourth floor, Poke overpowered the first correctional officer and took a gun while the other officer was briefly absent. Two other correctional officers, there with another inmate, responded. But Poke overpowered them, took the second gun, then took hostage a security guard and fled to the parking lot. He then shot the driver of a 1993 Toyota Camry before taking his car. Poke abandoned the car in Northwest, then carjacked a white 2005 Ford Explorer, which police followed into the cemetery.

The Prince George’s County officers involved in the shootout with Poke were identified yesterday as Cpl. Chris Smith, a 19-year veteran; Cpl James Simms, a 10-year veteran; Cpl. Adam Wyatt, and Cpl. David Cheatham, both eight-year veterans. They have been placed on administrative leave, according to police department policy.

Mr. Vernarelli said guards transport more than 800 inmates each month to medical facilities.

“We have more than 22,000 inmates, so medical care is a huge responsibility and a logistical challenge,” he said.

Mr. Vernarelli also said the secretary of public safety and commissioner of correction will work with police and unions leaders to determine whether changes are needed.

Some officials have already suggested that correctional officers be prohibited from carrying guns into hospitals.

Current rules require two correctional officers to accompany and stay with one inmate at a hospital. One officer is permitted to carry a gun.

0n Nov. 13, an inmate escaped for five hours from Laurel Regional Hospital. Kamara Mohamed, 39, of Oxon Hill, seized a state trooper’s gun, shot and wounded a female officer who followed him, and escaped for five hours. He was in jail facing charges of auto theft, burglary and carjacking.

The issue of reviewing policy was raised after the January 2006 slaying in a Hagerstown hospital of state Correctional Officer Jeffery Wroten, whose gun was then used to carjack a taxicab. The inmate, who was later captured, faces murder charges.

The Association of Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees, the collective bargaining agent for prison workers, maintains that placing inmates and armed guards in close proximity in community hospitals poses a threat to public safety.

“It’s a confined area,” said Patrick Moran, director of the Maryland chapter. “There are all sorts of opportunities for things to happen.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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