- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 8, 2008

How does a 6-foot-3, 235-pound man in leg shackles manage to overpower four guards, shoot and injure an innocent bystander, hijack two cars, drive around the District with a prostitute for hours attempting to procure drugs and sex, all the while being pursued by hundreds of police officers, dogs and a helicopter?

Who said, where there”s a will?

In his own cryptic words two weeks before he was killed in a shootout with police, Kelvin Poke, the escaped felon, wrote to his 22-year-old daughter that he “wasn”t dying in jail because he wasn”t born in jail.” Too bad, especially for the victims of his violent crimes, that Poke didn”t come to that realization earlier in his 45-year life. With his apparent death wish, it”s a wonder more people weren”t seriously harmed in his determined wake.

After he led authorities on a seven-hour manhunt that began Wednesday morning after his escape from the Laurel Regional Hospital, where he was taken for treatment of chest pains, Poke was killed by four Prince George”s County police officers in Cedar Hill Cemetery. He had been released from handcuffs at the hospital when he asked to go to the bathroom, although he was guarded by only one corrections officer, an apparent breach of state procedures.

In a letter Poke wrote to his daughter and her mother hinting of his plans, he said “basically his life was over,” Dmeon Poke told the Associated Press. She added that her father felt “railroaded” on an earlier hijacking charge because of his prior arrest record.

“I can see why he felt hopeless. He had life in prison. He didn”t have nothing,” she said.

Her mother, Rhonda Jackson, went further. “They say there”s such a thing as suicide by police. I believe there is. And I believe he did this on purpose,” she said. Perhaps. Poke, serving a sentence of life plus 40 years in Jessup Correctional Institution for the 2005 carjacking of a Hyattsville woman, knew he didn”t have anything to lose. However, the public does if Maryland officials do not devise a better plan for transferring prison inmates for hospital treatment.

Mark Vernarelli, spokesman for corrections department, said that 800 of the state’s 22,000 inmates are transported to medical facilities each month.

First, correctional officers should follow the procedures in place, which initially does not appear to be the case here.

So, is the poor training of officers at issue? Joseph Johnson, chief executive officer of Homeland Security Corp., and former consultant to correction departments nationwide, said, “With [Poke”s] history, [there’s] no way [guards] should have been unprepared for that to happen.” The “lax security” is indicative of the “serious problems Maryland has had with training of personnel” for a long time, he said. “Their corrections system has always been challenged.” Mr. Johnson noted that correctional officers receive training that is not as intensive as that of state troopers or police officers.

“This governor needs to take a serious top-to-bottom look with training of personnel,” he said.

Given Poke”s history of violent behavior and his “lifer” status, why weren”t the guards more watchful? Should inmates with greater incentive for escape be given greater scrutiny? This question leads to another about the in-house health-screening process. Is it adequately staffed and equipped to determine whether an inmate is faking it? Still, in the wake of recent prisoner escapes, Maryland hospitals are right to refuse care until correctional authorities make improvements in securing dangerous prisoners in these public situations.

You”d think that after state corrections Officer Jeffery A. Wroten was slain in 2006 in a Hagerstown hospital when his gun was taken and later used to hijack a taxicab, Maryland corrections officials could offer more than empty reassurances that they are studying the problem again. Where are the changes? Where is the oversight? Where are the sanctions?

For another long-range solution, with so many prisoners needing treatment and transport, it may be practical, prudent and even cost-effective to investigate the feasibility of constructing a hospital exclusively for prisoners.

In the interim, state officials must revisit their policies regarding inmate supervision by armed guards, especially in settings where the public is endangered.

Poke was able to overpower one armed prison guard while the other, presumably unarmed, was “on a short break.” Another guard, who was guarding another prisoner, came to his colleague”s aid. What might have happened if the second prisoner had taken advantage of this breach or had been in cahoots with Poke?

No matter. Maryland authorities must do better to keep bystanders, forced to come in close contact with desperate inmates, as safe and secure as humanly possible before another desperado finds the way to do his will.

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