Shaken by two violent escapes by prison inmates, a health care group that oversees a Laurel hospital announced that it will no longer admit inmates as patients in nonemergencies until security procedures are tightened.
The announcement comes a day after state police said that Kelvin D. Poke, a Jessup Correctional Institution inmate who was taken to Laurel Regional Hospital after complaining of chest pain, was being guarded by just one corrections officer and was not wearing handcuffs -- two apparent violations of Division of Correction policy.
On Wednesday, Poke overpowered two officers, stole their guns and fled in a vehicle he carjacked outside the hospital. He was killed seven hours later in a police shootout in a Prince George's County cemetery.
In a letter sent that afternoon to Gary D. Maynard, the state secretary of public safety and correctional services, and Maryland State Police Col. Terrence B. Sheridan, the head of the company that oversees Laurel Regional and Prince George's Hospital Center in Cheverly called recent events "unacceptable" and called for immediate action.
"We have always been willing to do our part in treating state and county prisoners who are brought to us," wrote G.T. Dunlop Ecker, president and chief executive officer of Dimensions Healthcare System, parent company of the two Prince George's County hospitals. "We need to be assured, however, that this will be done in a safe manner for all concerned."
Halting elective and secondary procedures wouldn't have stopped Poke, 45, or Kamara Mohamed, 39, who escaped Nov. 13 after grabbing a state trooper's gun at Laurel Regional. Both had been transported for emergency visits. By law, hospitals cannot refuse to treat emergency patients.
State police and correctional officials said they are considering sweeping changes in how they get inmates medical care, reviewing standards in other states and consulting with law enforcement leaders. This week, a corrections spokesman said the agency was looking into whether correctional officers should be armed during hospital visits, a change pushed by some union leaders since the January 2006 death of an officer in Hagerstown after an inmate stole his weapon. The state makes 12,000 inmate medical transfers annually.
"If they're worried about it, we're worried about it," said Rick Binetti, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, who added that Maynard had reached out to Ecker to schedule a meeting. Maynard has not been available for comment this week.
Suzanne C. Almalel, vice president of public affairs and government relations for Dimensions, said the hospitals would like clarity on inconsistent policies, noting that two state corrections officers were supposed to be watching Poke, but state police require just one trooper to accompany inmates. Visitor and phone call policies also are unclear, she said.
"The problem is, we don't know who's doing what," Almalel said. "Our goal is to save lives, and our nurses are not trained to overcome or overpower a prisoner that escapes. We want to have a unified protocol so our staff is aware and feels safe that they are following those protocols."
Some hospitals impose such policies themselves. Howard County General Hospital requires that a minimum of one guarding officer be at arm's length of an inmate at all times. Only one prisoner is allowed per floor, and no more than three are allowed in the building at a given time. They must remain shackled by their hands and feet, cannot use phones or receive visitors and are prevented from using certain utensils.
Greater Baltimore Medical Center spokesman Michael Schwartzberg said the Towson-area hospital is not considering a moratorium on inmate visits.
"The safety and security of patients and staff are a hallmark for any hospital," Schwartzberg said. "But I think while what happened at Laurel Regional was unfortunate and tragic, it was likely an anomaly. Hospitals remain very safe."
Only the University of Maryland Medical Center has a secure wing staffed by corrections officers, and prisoners taken there come mostly from Baltimore-area detention centers.
Some union leaders say the state should look into creating a state corrections hospital or regional centers to ensure inmates are treated in secure facilities, and that corrections officers should not be disarmed as long as inmates continue to be taken to community hospitals.
Nancy Fiedler, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Hospital Association, said the group is reviewing policies for inmate care and will monitor discussions between Dimensions and the state.
"We want to find out if there are lessons to be learned or things that need to take place on a statewide basis," Fiedler said. "I expect that we are going to weigh in as well, especially if there's some indication that this wasn't an isolated issue."