Culture Shock: Indictments flow in FBI probe of prison “culture” of covering up inmate beatings

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, March, 6, 2013

The correctional staffers met at a McDonald’s restaurant to get their stories straight. Having already lied to investigators probing the brutal March 2008 beatings of inmate Kenneth Davis at Roxbury Correctional Institution (RCI) in Hagerstown, saying they knew nothing about the incident, they needed to make sure they maintained that fiction—even consulting books about interview techniques to help them mislead truth-seekers. A lieutenant, now charged with obstructing justice for helping facilitate the cover-up, had provided the books and shared officers’ home phone numbers in order to set up the meeting away from work.

The jailers’ coordinated cover-up efforts in the aftermath of the Davis beatings are alleged in federal court documents filed in a quickly mounting Department of Justice (DOJ) Civil Rights Division prosecution based on an ongoing FBI probe. Two federal grand jury indictments for conspiring to beat Davis and cover up the crimes were handed down Feb. 27 against nine current and former Maryland corrections staffers, with other criminal conspiracy charges filed previously against another four.

So far, four current corrections employees—lieutenants Edwin Stigile and Jason Weicht, sergeant Josh Hummer, and correctional officer Walter Steele—and nine former officers have been charged. Three former officers and a former sergeant, Lanny Harris, were charged previously via criminal informations, which are filed with the defendants’ consent and usually indicate a guilty plea is imminent; three of them—Ryan Lohr, Dustin Norris, and Philip Mayo—have already pleaded guilty. The other indicted former officers are James Kalbflesh, Jeremy McCusker, Tyson Hinckle, Reginald Martin, and Michael Morgan. Those indicted face maximum sentences of between 25 and 55 years in prison.

In court documents, the alleged illegal conduct is said to have spawned from a “culture at RCI” in which “officers would beat up an inmate who had previously hit an officer,” despite knowing that “this practice of using force to punish and injure inmates was unlawful.” This culture is also implicated in the alleged cover-up: “officers would never tell investigators if they saw, or participated in, an assault on an inmate,” the documents say.

The beatings Davis received—four of them in a 24-hour period while he was “inside a single-occupant cell and did not pose a threat to anyone,” say court documents—were exhaustively investigated after they occurred, and numerous correctional officers lost or left their jobs as a result. Maryland law enforcers’ efforts to criminally convict some of them largely failed before juries, however, amid a prosecutor’s claims of a “blue wall” and “code of silence” among jailers.

After the beatings and ensuing investigation, Maryland’s prison agency, the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (DPSCS), “conducted an extensive review of all use of force policies and procedures,” as well as “training for correctional officers in the proper use of force,” and “found [them all] to be appropriate,” department spokesperson Rick Binetti wrote in an email. DPSCS’ long-held conclusion about the incident is that it was an isolated event involving rogue officers—a position that conflicts with the FBI’s contention that a “culture” of illegal beatings and cover-ups was in place.

The guilty pleas tendered so far in federal court, Binetti wrote, “along with the previous terminations of others in wake of this incident. . . suggests that these former correctional officers worked under strong misperceptions about how they were to conduct themselves professionally.” Those involved “ignored their training, did not follow the Department’s correctional officer code of conduct, and failed the professional responsibilities expected of them,” Binetti wrote.

David Fathi, the director of the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), says the circumstances prompting the current probe and prosecution in Maryland “is not uncommon” around the country, since “prisons are closed environments housing unpopular, politically powerless people,” so “if there isn’t adequate oversight and supervision, bad things happen.” When they come to light, “sometimes it leads to a concession by the agency that there’s a problem and positive changes result, but sometimes not.” A positive example, he says, is in Los Angeles, where an ACLU class-action lawsuit alleging a pattern of inmate beatings coincided with the appointment of a citizens’ commission on jail violence that issued suggestions for reforms that “are being implemented as we speak. But absent outside pressure, it’s all too easy for the agency to sweep these things under the rug.”

The current spate of prosecutions started out with charges against Lohr, filed Jan. 18. His guilty plea, entered on Jan. 30, was the first court document to reveal the probe’s findings that illegal retaliatory beatings had become institutionalized at RCI.

When asked about this on Feb. 5, Binetti called it a “ridiculous supposition,” mistakenly thinking that he was responding to a reporter’s theory about the investigation’s direction, rather than the federal government’s contention.

Since then, successive court documents filed in the ongoing prosecution have more specifically described the idea that RCI’s correctional culture included retaliatory beatings and cover-ups which officers knew to be illegal, providing a troubling context in which Davis’ beatings occurred. And while Maryland’s wide-ranging crackdown focused on officers rather than supervisors, the federal prosecution includes accusations against current supervisors—who, since they still have their jobs, apparently emerged unscathed in the state investigation—of participating in the conspiracy.

On Feb. 26, a day before the indictments were handed down and just after a third former officer had been charged federally, Binetti offered an official statement: “DPSCS does not take issue with any DOJ investigation related to the RCI/Ken Davis case. And in fact if asked, DPSCS would fully cooperate in any way it can.” After the indictments named an officer, a sergeant, and two lieutenants who are still on the job, Binetti added, “All we can tell you is that these four employees have been placed on administrative leave.”

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