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Union heartened by response to Md. prison assault

CUMBERLAND — A second prison manager is departing the maximum-security North Branch Correctional Institution after an inmate stabbed a correctional officer there earlier this month and the Maryland public safety department on Monday proposed tighter security measures at the lockup.

Officials at the state workers’ union said they were heartened by the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services’ response to the Aug. 5 attack on Herbert Hilliard, a four-year veteran who was stabbed multiple times and received a blood transfusion. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees has released a handwritten letter an inmate had sent to a correctional supervisor four days before the attack, warning there would be violence if two officers were not removed from a specific tier of the prison.

On Monday, the department said the security chief at North Branch, a 1,500-bed prison near Cumberland, will be reassigned in the department because the threatened officer wasn’t informed of the threat, per department policy.

“Departmental policy spells out an action plan that is to be followed when the threat becomes known, including notifying the threatened employee, contacting the DPSCS Internal Investigative Unit, and taking action necessary to protect employees and staff. The ongoing investigation has uncovered several deficiencies in how senior level staff at the institution followed the notification policy,” the department said in a news release.

The agency said the failure to notify Hilliard “was inadvertent and not the result of intentional misconduct.”

The agency said it expects to announce additional disciplinary action.

Deputy Secretary for Operations J. Michael Stouffer said in the statement that nothing is more important to the department than the safety and security of its staff.

“When policies are not properly followed, officer safety is compromised. Discipline must be swift and severe for those employees who do not adhere to policy when doing so results in injuries to staff,” Stouffer said.

Department spokesman Mark Vernarelli refused to identify the security chief. AFSME officials said he is Keith Arnold.

‘A good start’

On Friday, the agency announced that Jon Galley, executive director of the region that includes North Branch, will retire Nov. 1. Officials said Monday his retirement isn’t related to the assault on Hilliard.

AFSCME officials viewed both departures as resulting from the assault on Hilliard. The union had demanded both their resignations, along with those of Stouffer and two others.

“That’s a good start,” AFSCME spokesman Jeff Pittman said Monday.

The department announced the security chief’s removal shortly before department Secretary Gary Maynard met with scores of correctional officers at Allegany College of Maryland near Cumberland Monday night. The meeting was closed to news media.

Maynard said before the meeting that he would propose a “controlled movement” program, including tighter security during inmate movements outside their cells. He said the measures could include moving inmates in smaller groups to recreational yards, and requiring the most dangerous inmates to wear restraints and be escorted by correctional officers.

“We have to decide if that’s what we want,” Maynard said.

Maynard said he wanted the officers to know “I am the responsible person. I’m the one responsible for their safety.”

AFSCME Maryland President Patrick Moran said after the nearly two-hour meeting that Maynard mentioned the maximum-control plan. Moran said he was encouraged by Maynard’s willingness to sit down with the prison staff to discuss making the maximum-security prison safer and more secure.

“He talked about a willingness to get with the warden and number of our members and talk about substantive changes that we’d like to see made that we can all agree upon that would make the jail safer and more secure,” Moran said.

“What is encouraging is he’s willing to sit down with the frontline staff that run things, that execute things every day, and talk to them about providing a better environment for them and the facility as a whole,” he said.

Hilliard attended the meeting. He said beforehand that he’s feeling better and recovering from his injuries.

“I’m just hoping that whatever’s said tonight helps make better safety and security for the officers so nobody has to deal with what I’ve had to go through,” he said.

The stabbing followed a summertime spike in assaults on officers at the facility that the union characterized as gang-related.

Maynard said the inmate who stabbed Hilliard acted alone and was not affiliated with any gang. He said investigators don’t know if there was a connection between the inmate and the person who wrote the letter.

The state agency that oversees Maryland correctional facilities has been under scrutiny in recent months in the aftermath of a federal indictment of 25 people in a contraband conspiracy case at the state-run Baltimore City Detention Center, including 13 correctional officers. The indictment exposed embarrassing security lapses and an atmosphere that enabled inmates to skirt around regulations. One gang member, Tavon White, held unusual sway inside the detention center. White pleaded guilty on Tuesday to a racketeering conspiracy for running operations of the Black Guerilla Family gang inside several correctional facilities.

A legislative panel has been studying ways to improve security.