Rogues or Regulars? Federal Inmate-Beating Probe Conflicts with Official Line at Maryland Prison Agency

by Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Feb. 20, 2013

An FBI investigation into a Maryland inmate’s 2008 beatings at Roxbury Correctional Institute (RCI) in Hagerstown is challenging the Maryland prison agency’s official take on the exhaustively investigated incident, court records show, prompting agency spokespeople to attack the probe’s direction and mount an impassioned defense of the agency.

Yet the FBI’s contention, revealed in recent court filings, that the beatings stemmed from institutionalized, extra-legal retribution for inmates who strike officers—an angle fiercely denied by Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (DPSCS) spokespeople—is echoed in ongoing federal lawsuits brought by inmates who claim to have been unlawfully assaulted by staff who then took steps to cover up the incidents.

The FBI’s take on what gave rise to the 2008 beatings was made public in early February, in a criminal conspiracy case against two former correctional officers, 26-year-old Ryan Lohr (“And the Beating Goes On,” Mobtown Beat, Jan. 30) and 28-year-old Dustin Norris. The case is being prosecuted by the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division (CRD), which has extensive experience with cases involving public-safety officers assaulting their charges and attempting to cover up the crimes.

Lohr’s guilty plea and criminal charges filed against Norris portray a practice in which the newly hired correctional officers were instructed by their colleagues that inmates who strike officers will be beaten with intent to injure them—conduct that Lohr and Norris knew to be unlawful. Lohr, Norris, and six others—four officers and two supervisors, all identified only by two-letter initials, and none of whom have been publicly charged in federal court—then allegedly worked to obstruct the investigation that followed beatings inflicted on inmate Kenneth Davis. In Norris’ charging document, one of the supervisors is alleged to have told Norris, after leaving the scene of the beating, that, “I had to get mine too,” presumably a reference to striking the inmate.

An FBI press release about Lohr’s case includes a statement by Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez, CRD’s chief, that “the U.S. Constitution protects inmates and the Justice Department will continue to vigorously prosecute correctional officers who use their official position to assault inmates or to cover up crimes committed by their fellow officers.”

DPSCS and the Maryland State Police conducted high-profile investigations of the incident, resulting in multiple firings and criminal prosecutions of officers. Most of the firings were upheld after administrative challenges, but the criminal cases, in large part, resulted in jury acquittals. Court records show only officers were disciplined or prosecuted by Maryland authorities, so the inclusion of two supervisors in court documents involving Lohr and Norris indicates the FBI’s investigation reaches higher up the chain of command.

Court records show that DPSCS concluded that the beatings Kenneth Davis received while in handcuffs—four in a 24-hour period on March 8 and 9, 2008—were “an isolated matter involving rogue officers and that no additional training or supervision was necessary.”

The FBI’s contention that other correctional officers schooled Lohr and Norris in the practice of beating and injuring inmates who strike officers is “a ridiculous supposition,” DPSCS spokesperson Rick Binetti wrote in response to City Paper’s inquiries. Binetti contends that Lohr’s guilty plea, along with DPSCS’ record of disciplining the officers involved in the Davis beatings, “stand as strong evidence that [Lohr’s] perception about how he was supposed to conduct himself as a professionally trained DPSCS correctional officer was wrong. It certainly wasn’t what he was taught at the correctional academy.”

Binetti’s colleague, DPSCS communications manager Danielle Lueking, posted an online comment on a recent City Paper story (“Guilty plea suggests inmate beatings were institutionalized at Maryland prison,” The News Hole, Feb. 5, 2013), strenuously defending the department. “It is quite a stretch,” Lueking wrote, “for the City Paper to suggest that the comments of one [former] officer, who just plead [sic] guilty to federal [conspiracy] charges, that the use of excessive force in one of Maryland’s correctional facilities is ‘institutionalized’ in any form.”

At least two ongoing federal lawsuits filed by other inmates—Benjamin Davis (no relation to Kenneth Davis) and Heru Segu—claim correctional officers illegally assaulted them in circumstances similar to those described in the case against Lohr and Norris, and both involve officers who were caught up in the investigative aftermath of the Kenneth Davis beatings.

Segu’s case, filed in 2007, survived DPSCS efforts to have it dismissed and is on track for a jury trial. He alleges that a correctional officer who was tried and acquitted in state court of assault charges over the Kenneth Davis beatings, “repeatedly punched” Segu “in the face” while he was handcuffed, “without provocation while other officers watched and took no action,” according to court records. Subsequently, the officers allegedly took steps to cover up the assault by filing reports saying that Segu had been the attacker.

Benjamin Davis’ case was filed in 2008 and alleges he was assaulted and deprived of medical care in retaliation for aiding investigations into unlawful use of force by correctional officers. Much of the litigation has explored the department’s handling of the Kenneth Davis matter—including the role of a lieutenant who may be the “supervisor ES” identified as a co-conspirator in Lohr’s guilty plea in the Kenneth Davis case.

In a recent letter to City Paper, Benjamin Davis says the lieutenant helped “frame” him on a “fraudulent assault allegation” of which he was “ultimately exonerated.” In Lohr’s plea, the supervisor is described as having destroyed videotape that would have provided key evidence about Kenneth Davis’ beatings.

In his letter, Benjamin Davis says that, in light of Lohr’s case, with its indication that other officers and supervisors may also face federal charges, “I am inclined to refuse any settlement” offer to end his litigation. (Court records show his case is expected to be settled without a trial.) While “there is no dispute that some inmates do assault some officers,” the letter states, “for decades” correctional staff “have not only been inflicting physical violence on the inmate population, they have also been manipulating the criminal justice system to aide them in covering up such abuse.”

Whether the FBI’s investigation into Kenneth Davis’ beatings will extend to other instances of allegedly unlawful violence and cover-up remains to be seen. But the FBI press release about Lohr’s plea says “the case is ongoing.”

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