The Big Hurt: Inmate claims gang-tied correctional officer ordered “hit”

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Aug. 4, 2010

“Beware the Ides of March,” Julius Caesar was warned before he was stabbed to death on March 15. But Michael Smith, an inmate in the Maryland correctional system, had no such warning on March 15, 2007, when he was stabbed and beaten on a prison bus in Baltimore. Two weeks later, he was attacked again. And on June 2, 2007, it happened a third time.

Smith contends he knows why the three attacks occurred: A correctional officer he identifies by last name only, “Crew,” who he dubs a Bloods gang member, has it out for him.

Smith contends he and Crew had been in the drug-smuggling business together, splitting among themselves part of the proceeds from bringing pot into prison, and putting the balance in the Bloods’ treasury. When Smith could no longer hold up his end of the arrangement, he tried to pull out of the partnership, he says, and as a result Crew allegedly put a “hit” out on his life. Smith also contends that prison officials withheld immediate medical care and failed repeatedly to keep him safe, despite his consistent attempts—both verbally and in writing—to call attention to the danger he faced.

Smith, who also uses the name Michael Reed, put his allegations in a federal lawsuit, with voluminous documents attached to verify his claims. He filed it on March 15, 2010, exactly three years after the initial attack, naming as defendants Crew and eight other prison officials and asking for $500,000 in punitive and compensatory damages. Lawyers with the Maryland Office of the Attorney General, who are representing the defendants, have requested extensions on filing a response, which is now due in September.

Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (DPSCS) spokesman Rick Binetti would not comment on Smith’s lawsuit, since it is pending litigation.

During a recent phone interview, Smith’s mother, Brenda Smith, initially expresses concern that publicity about her son’s lawsuit might place him in renewed danger, but she agrees to speak about it in the hopes that his experiences would spark public discussion about problems in the correctional system.

“He didn’t die,” she says, “but he almost died. I’m kind of scared for him, because he’s still in there. He still has two more years [to serve]. Everything has calmed down, and he’s in protective custody now, but even when he comes out in the street, you never know—there’s a contract out to kill him.”

City Paper asked DPSCS to provide Crew’s full name, but official confirmation was not provided by press time. However, in response to an earlier request, DPSCS has said that a correctional officer named Duwuane Crew resigned on May 22, 2007, a little over two months after Smith’s initial attack. Attempts to locate Crew for comment were unsuccessful.

Duwuane Crew was described in a deposition in another inmate’s lawsuit (“Ganging Up,” Mobtown Beat, Oct. 21, 2009) as having “passed handcuff keys on to inmates,” which is precisely what Smith says Crew did in order to facilitate the first attack. DPSCS documents filed in that lawsuit—which the plaintiff, Tashma McFadden, and the defendant, Correctional Officer Antonia Allison, recently settled—show that, as early as November 2006, DPSCS had internal intelligence identifying Duwuane Crew as a Bloods gang member.

Michael Smith’s claims, if true, fit into a pattern of corruption among correctional officers in Maryland that has come into tight focus since April 2009, when a federal drug indictment of members of a prison gang, the Black Guerrilla Family (BGF), named four correctional employees as defendants (“Black-Booked,” Feature, Aug. 5, 2009). All of them have since pleaded guilty, and a fifth was recently indicted in a BGF racketeering conspiracy (“Working Overtime,” Mobtown Beat, July 14).

Meanwhile, court records of other criminal and civil cases provide evidence that the Maryland correctional system is rife with correctional-officer corruption (“Inside Job,” Feature, May 12), though DPSCS says corruption is not a systemic problem and that it is confronting the issue.

The March 15, 2007, attack on Michael Smith made the news at the time, though Smith’s lawsuit adds details that were not provided to the media. In his complaint, Smith writes that the attack occurred in the prison transport van, as he and four other inmates were being taken back to BCDC after their court appearances. Smith, who was 22 years old at the time, had just received a 20-year prison sentence, all but eight years suspended, as a plea deal for a variety of violent, drug-related conduct.

Smith writes that, while in the transport van, he “noticed Ofc. Crew speaking ‘confidentially’ with inmate Brian Medlin” and “witnessed Ofc. Crew ‘slip’ something to inmate Medlin.” Soon thereafter, “Medlin escaped his 3-point security restraint devices (i.e., handcuffs, waist-chain w[ith] padlock, and ankle-chain cuffs) and began to viciously beat me repeatedly about the head, neck and shoulder area, while stabbing me with a home-made knife.”

Court records confirm that the incident led to Medlin’s conviction, as Smith contends in his complaint. Medlin received a 30-year sentence for attempted second-degree murder.

After the attack, Smith writes, he asked prison officials to have him hospitalized, but instead he was “capriciously placed in isolation without medical treatment of any kind,” even though he was “severely injured and in real pain,” suffering from “an assortment of contusions, head trauma, deep lacerations, and stab wounds.” While in the isolation cell, Smith continues, he “actually lost consciousness,” which “was not discovered until some time later,” at which point he was “immediately rushed” to the emergency room at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Brenda Smith says prison officials never contacted her about the attack. “They left Michael in that cell,” she says, “and they did not call me.”

After returning from the hospital, Smith was transferred to the Maryland Reception, Diagnostic, and Classification Center (MRDCC), also in Baltimore, where he writes that he “immediately made ‘any and all staff’ aware of the nature of my circumstances, specifically the threat to my safety and ‘hit’ on my life,” and asked “to be placed on protective custody.” Instead, he was kept in administrative segregation—a less safeguarded status.

On April 4, 2007, Smith was transferred to the Maryland Correctional Institution in Hagerstown, where he writes that he was “viciously attacked in the dormitory area by a ‘group’ of unknown individuals” within 24 hours of his arrival. He was again taken to a hospital for treatment, and again, upon his return to the prison, was placed on administrative segregation until June 1, 2007, when he was transferred to Brockbridge Correctional Facility in Jessup. There, Smith writes that he was stabbed in his “right eye and head several times, as well as hit in the head with locks,” within a day of his arrival, and was “immediately transferred to the Jessup Correctional Institution’s hospital,” where he stayed for a week.

Ultimately, Smith—who claims, with documentation, to have filed and appealed inmate grievances at every step of the way, only to have them rejected—ended up in protective custody at Western Correctional Institution in Cumberland.

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