Jailhouse Shock: Inmate lawsuits offer more alarming evidence of Maryland prisons’ culture of corruption

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, May 29, 2013

Inmates are convicted criminals, and many land in prison for violence and dishonesty they may repeat on the inside. Correctional officers (COs) are sworn to protect the safety of inmates and the public, and have a very tough job watching over their charges. Inmates assault them, sometimes kill them, and regularly provoke them with the types of nasty, unruly behavior one might expect from convicted criminals who, generally speaking, are not to be trusted.

Sometimes, though, inmates provide critical, confirming details of large-scale problems in prison systems. Sometimes they are truth-tellers with valuable insights about an often dark and disturbing milieu—prison life—that by and large remains tightly guarded from public view.

Their avenues for doing this are limited. An inmate’s letter to a reporter alleging official misconduct, for instance, will generally be regarded with well-founded skepticism that can only be overcome by exhaustive corroboration that, in the end, may utterly fail to support what’s alleged. Another route is to file lawsuits, and many, many inmates do this, and the vast majority of their complaints are dismissed because they simply don’t hold water, either on the facts or on procedural grounds.

But an inmate who files a lawsuit which then, despite his lack of sophistication or legal counsel, survives the well-oiled, heavily documented attacks of government attorneys, well, that inmate has accomplished something rare and extraordinary. He ends up, after having initially scrawled a handwritten complaint on notepaper or on a preprinted form with extra pages attached, with court-appointed attorneys who, if he’s fortunate, prosecute his case with zeal and enter properly formatted legal filings with all the points and authorities.

That inmate’s battle-tested allegations are worth noting. And if the case proves sufficiently strong, he’ll end up with a settlement that may include a check, reassignment to a safer prison environment, or even a court-adjudicated agreement to implement relevant reforms. It’s unusual, but it happens—and there are a good number of well-developed inmate lawsuits that shed important light on Maryland’s current correctional-corruption scandals.

When, in April, the nation took notice after an FBI probe resulted in a Maryland racketeering indictment against members of the Black Guerrilla Family (BGF) prison gang, including 13 COs accused of smuggling contraband into the jail and generally facilitating the gang’s criminal takeover of the Baltimore City Detention Center (BCDC), reporters on the story found two inmates’ prior lawsuits that confirmed aspects of the FBI’s allegations. Both cases were notable in showing that Maryland’s correctional corruption is a troublingly persistent problem, and both had survived the gauntlet of government motions for dismissal or summary judgment to end up finding the holy grail: a settlement.

One of the cases, brought by inmate Tashma McFadden, alleged that a gang-tied CO orchestrated a brutal attack on him on July 5, 2006, by other inmates inside BCDC (“Ganging Up,” Oct. 21, 2009). The attack, McFadden claimed, was in retaliation for a verbal exchange McFadden had with the CO the day before, and he was stabbed 32 times after the CO allegedly opened his cell door to allow the attackers in. In 2010, McFadden settled the case with the defendant, CO Antonia Allison—one of the 13 COs now accused of racketeering with the BGF.

Documents in the McFadden case showed that Maryland corrections officials in 2006 and 2007 had been alerted in investigative memos that 16 COs at BCDC were suspected of being members of or affiliated with gangs, but the investigator who turned up the information had been ordered to cease writing the memos. One of the suspected COs was Allison, who, despite the memo naming her and the information that came to light in McFadden’s lawsuit, remained on the job until she was indicted this year.

Another CO named in the same memos as Allison was Duwuane Crew. In 2010, Crew became a defendant in a lawsuit brought by another inmate, Michael Smith, who claimed Crew was a gang-tied CO who facilitated a brutal 2007 attack on him in a prison transport van as it approached BCDC (“The Big Hurt,” Aug. 4, 2010). Smith, who also uses the name Michael Reed, assiduously prosecuted his lawsuit, which included allegations of subsequent attacks in other prisons, with meticulous documentation and surprisingly effective legal arguments.

After finally getting a court-appointed attorney, Smith, on May 1, was given a $40,000 settlement by the Maryland Board of Public Works, prompting more media reports about how Maryland’s correctional-corruption problem is far from new.

Thanks to the efforts of Tashma McFadden and Michael Smith in pressing their claims, the public has been given valuable perspective on this issue. But theirs, which have already received widespread attention, are not the only ones. City Paper scoured the federal court dockets for relevant, robust cases brought by other inmates and found others that have yet to be discussed by the media.

In the months before the FBI’s BGF probe erupted in April with a racketeering indictment involving Maryland COs, another FBI investigation into correctional corruption in Maryland had already borne fruit. Starting in January and continuing in February and March, the U.S. Department of Justice’s headquarters-based Civil Rights Division (DOJ-CRD) secured criminal charges against 15 current and former Maryland COs and correctional supervisors in connection with the 2008 repeated beatings of Kenneth Davis, then an inmate at Roxbury Correctional Institution (RCI) in Hagerstown (“Culture Shock,” March 6). Court documents in the cases describe a “culture” of conspiratorial cover-ups of unlawful beatings of inmates who assaulted COs in Maryland prisons. So far, six of the defendants have pleaded guilty, while the rest have maintained their innocence, and some have recently moved to have their indictments dismissed.

Inmate lawsuits confirm the FBI’s allegations on this front too—but many more than in the settled cases involving claims of gang-tied COs. To tell their stories, a good entry point is inmate claims of abuse involving former CO Brian Hawk.

Hawk’s career as a CO in Western Maryland came to a screeching halt in 2011, when he faced criminal charges in Allegany County that he’d conspired to bring contraband cellphones, phone chargers, and tobacco into Western Correctional Institution (WCI) in Cumberland, and he later pleaded guilty and received a one-year suspended prison sentence. By that time, he’d been a CO for nine years, during which six Maryland inmates brought federal civil rights lawsuits naming Hawk and other COs as defendants.

In some cases, the inmates claimed to have been unlawfully assaulted by Hawk and other COs, sometimes in retaliation for the inmates’ perceived bad conduct. In other cases, they claimed Hawk and other COs had purposefully put them in grave danger by assigning them to prison cells where the COs allegedly hoped or expected the inmates would be attacked by violent cellmates. In one case, brought unsuccessfully by inmate Derek Alexander Roberts in 2009, Hawk is alleged to have placed a piece of paper that read “BGF” over Roberts’ cell door upon Roberts’ arrival at WCI, despite his claims to having no gang affiliation, making prison life a living hell for him from that point on. All of the cases suggest that inmate safety was not high on the list of Hawk’s priorities.

The case involving Hawk that made it the farthest—it was closed in 2010, after a settlement agreement was accepted and placed under seal by a federal judge—was brought in 2008 by inmate Malcolm Maxwell Ryidu-X.

A self-described former police informant who had earned the permanent ire of the Bloods, after having helped bring to an end a brutal Bloods attack on a rival inmate, Ryidu-X was supposed to be held permanently in protective custody, away from the general prison propulation. According to the lawsuit, though, correctional staff repeatedly and improperly placed him in the company of other inmates who wanted him harmed or killed.

In one such instance in early 2008, Hawk allegedly put Ryidu-X in a cell at WCI with a gang-member inmate who proceeded to stab him. Then, while Ryidu-X was getting medical treatment, Hawk allegedly allowed the gang-member inmate to destroy Ryidu-X’s property. Other COs, after having placed Ryidu-X in a cell with another gang-member inmate who repeatedly assaulted him, including sexually, allegedly told him to “fuck or fight.”

Another Hawk-related lawsuit, which recently survived the state’s effort to bring it to a close, was brought by inmate Ronald Haskins, a Baltimore man who’d been in prison since the 1990s for firearms and assault convictions.

On Aug. 9, 2008, Hawk allegedly asked Haskins, “You like assaulting my officers?” and proceeded to attack him under the misapprehension that Haskins had thrown a contraband cellphone at another CO, striking him in the head. Hawk allegedly bashed Haskins’ head into a steel grate and beat and kicked him in the head and body, calling him “nigger,” until he fell unconscious, according to court records, despite other COs’ explanations that Haskins hadn’t thrown the phone.

The COs’ reports of the incident “did not indicate significant use of force” against Haskins, according to court records.

Haskins contended he suffered brain damage and filed a series of administrative grievances over the incident, all of which were dismissed. He also sought to have Hawk charged criminally, but those efforts failed as well.

The factual elements of Haskins’ complaint—that he was beaten and bashed by corrections staff in retaliation for supposedly assaulting a CO—resonate with a veteran Maryland inmate, now free, who claims to have served time in the 1990s and 2000s in nearly every men’s correctional facility in the state.

“They will fuck you up,” says the former inmate, who asked to remain anonymous. “I’ve seen people fucked up so bad [after assaulting COs] they had to be transferred to another prison.” But he claims “that really only happens up in Hagerstown and Cumberland, where you get these hillbillies” working as COs and “everyone’s related, so they can cover up what they want.”

The story of another inmate’s interactions with Hawk also bears repeating, even if it never passed muster in the courts. Gregory Marshall, who claims to suffer from mental illness and blindness, unsuccessfully sued several times after Hawk and other COs at WCI allegedly beat him in 2007, causing an arm fracture and a “busted open” eye, injuries he says went untreated by the prison’s medical staff, because they “are trying to help [the COs] cover it up,” according to court records.

In one of his lawsuits, Marshall writes that the COs retaliated against him by filing false charges that he’d “thrown feces” on them and that a lieutenant told him: “Cumberland’s a small town. Everyone knows someone. Hell, most people working here are related. We know the judge. No one will take the word of a nigger over a white man.”

Heru Hannibal Segu, a former Maryland inmate, claims to have been punched in the face repeatedly by a CO at RCI in 2007 while some COs watched, laughed, and made racist comments. His lawsuit over the alleged brutality survived the state’s attempt to thwart its continued prosecution, and he has been appointed a team of attorneys to represent him. The case is currently in the thick of the discovery process—including a deposition of Ryan Lohr, one of the defendants in the ongoing FBI/DOJ-CRD probe into an allegedly assaultive, retaliatory, and justice-obstructing culture in Maryland’s prisons. Two more criminal defendants in that probe, Tyson Hinckle and Reginald Martin, are named as defendants in Segu’s lawsuit.

Segu claims that Hinckle, while escorting him in handcuffs to a strip-search room at RCI in Oct. 2007, addressed him using racial epithets and told him he was “going to teach [you] a lesson, boy, when you get over there,” according to court documents. Once in the room, Hinckle allegedly punched Segu five times in the face, breaking a tooth. After removing the handcuffs and strip-searching him, he was recuffed, and Hinckle allegedly punched him again in the face. The reason for the beating, according to court documents, is that Segu—who at the time had only two more weeks before being released—was known to file grievances against officers, was “outspoken,” and is a Nation of Islam member. He also contends RCI supervisors “conspired to cover up the incident.”

The defense contends, meanwhile, that Segu was combative and that “the force applied by officers was employed professionally in self-defense.”

Lohr, who pleaded guilty to one count of criminal conspiracy on Jan. 30, about two weeks after he was charged by DOJ-CRD, was deposed in the Segu case on March 14. His testimony, under oath and with the requirement under his criminal plea agreement that he testify truthfully, speaks to the environment in which Segu’s alleged assault took place.

Segu’s attorney, Todd Reinecker, asked Lohr: “Did someone tell you to lie to investigators and obstruct justice?” His response: “I don’t know whether anybody specifically told me to do that. It was kind of a common thing at Roxbury. Things like this happen.” Later, Reinecker asked whether “there is a culture at RCI that accepts or fosters physical or verbal abuse against inmates by correctional officers?” Lohr responded, “I would say yeah.”

Lohr also described a “code of silence” that exists among COs, in which “you don’t tell. I mean, if something happens, you deal with it, that’s it. And, basically, if it ain’t on paper, it never happened.” Lohr went on to admit he lied to investigators on the Kenneth Davis beatings because he feared he’d face retribution for breaking the code of silence if he didn’t—but when asked by Reinecker if Hinckle, Martin, and six other COs and supervisors were “enforcers” of the code, Lohr invoked his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination.

“Roxbury repeatedly covered up prisoner abuse, and he was targeted for protesting the abuses.” That’s how U.S. District Judge William Quarles, in a 2012 opinion allowing inmate Benjamin Davis’ 2008 lawsuit to proceed, summarized Davis’ allegations. Like Segu’s case, Davis’ lawsuit intersects with the FBI/DOJ-CRD probe; in fact, it was on track for settlement in January but the negotiations broke down in the wake of the criminal charges being filed, though the state recently moved to enforce the settlement agreement. One of the defendants in the criminal obstruction-of-justice conspiracy case—lieutenant Edwin Stigile, who’s accused of destroying videotape that recorded the beatings Kenneth Davis received—was deposed in Benjamin Davis’ case in January 2012.

Benjamin Davis’ alleged problems initially stemmed from a written statement he gave in support of an inmate he saw assaulted by CO Joseph Harsh in 2007, Quarles’ ruling explains.

“The Roxbury disciplinary committee found that Harsh had used excessive force,” Quarles wrote, and that “Harsh and another officer had lied and filed false statements to cover up the incident.” Despite the fact that Maryland Department of Corrections policy dictates that Harsh therefore should have been fired, Quarles continued, “Harsh was not disciplined, and no record of the findings was placed in his file.”

As a result, Davis claims to have paid dearly in the ensuing months. His repeated requests for medical treatment for bladder and ear infections were ignored by COs until Davis attracted the attention of their superiors by staging a kind of protest: refusing to return to his cell after outdoor recreation. After Davis received the much-overdue treatment, he was found unconscious in his cell, and Harsh allegedly dragged him out of the cell in handcuffs, spraining Davis’ wrist in the process.

A week later, with Davis’ wrist still in a brace, Harsh allegedly ordered him to put his hands through a metal door slot so they could be handcuffed—and proceeded to inflict pain on his injured wrist while dragging his other wrist across the edge of the door slot. After two hours of bleeding while the COs allegedly refused to respond to Davis’ requests for medical care, the resulting laceration was finally closed with 10 sutures, according to court documents.

Days later, Davis’ security status was boosted from “medium” to “maximum,” and when a hearing was held over Harsh’s alleged assault on Davis’ wrist that resulted in sutures, Harsh was cleared—but Davis was deemed to have displayed “assaultive behavior” and was ordered to be moved to North Branch Correctional Institution (NBCI) in Cumberland, Maryland’s highest-security prison, according to Quarles’ opinion.

According to a May 14 filing by the government in Davis’ case, a settlement agreement with Davis had been reached in December, though it has yet to be finalized. The terms included that Davis be reclassified to “medium” security status and transferred to the Maryland Correctional Institute-Jessup (MCI-J), where he would have no cellmate and be given a job. In addition, “good conduct credits” would be restored to Davis, who would receive a settlement check from the State of Maryland in the amount of $28,042.

But there are also two terms in Davis’ settlement agreement involving government reform. One would require that RCI “adopt a 45-day video retention policy”—an issue for Davis, since the state was unable to produce videotapes (they apparently disappeared from a prison vault) that his attorneys believed would have bolstered his claims and undercut the state’s defense. The other, which is presumably related, would require consultation between Davis’ attorneys and the government’s attorneys over the state’s procedures for retaining all information that may prove relevant in litigation.

Numerous other lawsuits alleging brutality against Maryland inmates have survived the state’s efforts to have them brought to an end. Here are some of their stories, based on court documents:

 WCI inmate Todd Woody alleges that the BGF is out to get him, and that in retaliation for Woody reporting thefts of property involving COs and leaders of the Aryan Brotherhood (AB), in 2011 COs forced him into cell assignments with BGF inmates, resulting in him being repeatedly beaten and raped.

 NBCI inmate Phillip Michael Scott alleges that, in retaliation for filing grievances against COs, three COs helped another CO beat and choke him in 2009 while calling him racist names and threatening to kill him, while another three correctional staffers (including two supervisors) watched and did nothing. Subsequently, the CO who beat and choked him allegedly conspired with other COs to file false reports about the incident so that Scott, not they, would be found guilty of infractions.

 Steven Ray Wilkerson was an inmate at MCI-J in 2011, when he claims to have been beaten by a lieutenant. The beating occurred after he’d witnessed, twice in quick succession, COs assaulting inmates, one of them handcuffed. After he and other inmates were ordered into the “bullpen” area of the facility, the lieutenant entered and allegedly announced he was going to “fuck an inmate up”—and allegedly proceeded to do just that to Wilkerson.

 NBCI inmate Alton Tolson claims to have been repeatedly assaulted by COs in 2009 after he’d been involved in an altercation with another CO. As the first beating started, one of the COs allegedly asked Tolson, while punching him in the face, “Why you do that to my homegirl, yo?” After it was over, he was sent to an area hospital for treatment, and the subsequent investigation concluded that Tolson’s “injuries were consistent with the guards’ contention that plaintiff was injured as a result of plaintiff’s own combativeness, rather than by the guards’ malicious use of force.”

Another RCI inmate, David Brightwell, claims to have been unlawfully beaten while handcuffed by five COs who were escorting him from the shower in 2011. One of the COs allegedly said, just prior to the start of the beating, “Since you are a bad nigger, we going to find out.”

After the beating ended in his cell, leaving him with a bloody face and knee, the COs laughed and did nothing in response to his request to be taken to the infirmary for treatment, and his later request for treatment was similarly denied by another three COs. He claims more than two weeks passed before he finally received medical attention and that the physician’s assistant did not note that he’d been withheld treatment for so long. For weeks at a time after the incident, Brightwell says he was not allowed to take showers. In the lengthy grievance process that followed, Brightwell alleges a cover-up occurred, abetted by the administrative-law judge who heard his case, and that his claims were dismissed for procedural reasons at every stage.

During the investigation of the incident, his cellmate told investigators that one of the COs who’d allegedly beaten Brightwell had, on an earlier occasion, “come to their cell with a noose for President Obama” and that the CO who escorted the cellmate to the interview had told him “not to get involved.” Nonetheless, the cellmate substantially corroborated Brightwell’s version of the beating. The COs who were allegedly involved, however, claimed that Brightwell’s trip from the shower back to the cell on the date of the alleged beating had been uneventful.

“Mr. Brightwell alleges that he was attacked by correctional officers at Roxbury,” his attorney, Jason Wallach, explained in an interview. “He believes it was because he was speaking up for other inmates who were being beaten by correctional officers. We are currently working on an amended complaint that will add additional allegations,” Wallach continued.

Wallach says he is aware that DOJ-CRD’s ongoing probe into correctional corruption involving retaliatory beatings of inmates has concluded “it was a culture” in Maryland prisons. The fact that the probe has resulted in charges, and that it continues, he says, “lends credence to Mr. Brightwell’s statements.”

After his May 14 appointment to represent Brightwell, Wallach says “one of the first things I did was to contact the Department of Justice, and I was told the investigation is ongoing.” He says “that leaves open the possibility” that those who allegedly beat Brightwell could be criminally prosecuted, and he speculates that DOJ-CRD is “probably aware” of Mr. Brightwell’s allegations.

“There is plenty of time for the Department of Justice to prosecute any wrongdoing that they may find,” Wallach adds.

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