Prisoner escapes renew hospital debate

Jan. 7, 2008
Presence of 'forensic patients' creates challenges for hospital security

HAGERSTOWN, Md. -- The latest daring escape by a prisoner who grabbed a guard's gun while at a hospital has renewed debate over whether firearms should be carried at all by authorities watching over inmates at medical centers.

The confrontation at Laurel Regional Hospital this week was the third in Maryland over the last two years. Similar escapes happened in that period in Blacksburg, Va.; Columbus, Ohio; Salt Lake City and Detroit.

Guns are deterrents, but "what you find is, you're in a situation where you're introducing a weapon into an otherwise sterile environment, and that's the downside," said Tony York, president of the International Association for Health Care Security and Safety in the Chicago suburb of Glendale Heights.

York said his organization is developing industry standards, which currently don't exist, for security measures in such situations.

There are no readily available statistics on the number of escapes from hospitals. But experts agree they are rare compared with the number of inmates taken outside prison gates for medical care - at least 800 a month in Maryland.

Laurel Regional Hospital, where inmate Kelvin Poke was taken for heart-attack symptoms before escaping Wednesday, has stopped accepting prisoners for non-emergency care until security can be improved.

Poke, who was killed by police seven hours later, was the second escape from Laurel Regional in two years involving a prisoner grabbing an officer's gun. The 45-year-old convicted kidnapper shot and wounded a motorist outside the hospital and stole his car before dying in a shootout in a cemetery.

Hospital security consultant Jeff Aldridge, of Security Assessments International in Durham, N.C., said "most of these prisoners know that the only way they are going to escape out of a correctional facility is by being on the outside."

In a similar incident in June, a Utah inmate fatally shot a prison guard after grabbing his gun at an orthopaedic center. That led the Department of Corrections to add a full-time officer at the facility to relieve others during rest or bathroom breaks, spokeswoman Angie Welling said.

She said the agency also armed officers at hospitals with electric stun guns in addition to the guns they still carry. The Taser is the first option for calming disruptions, and becomes a backup if the guard's gun is seized, Welling said.

In Ohio, a federal inmate allegedly robbed two banks last May and took two women hostage after stealing an officer's gun at a Youngstown hospital.

And in Blacksburg, Va., a robbery suspect allegedly killed a hospital security guard in August 2006 after taking a deputy's gun. In December of that year, a suspected car thief stole an officer's gun at a Detroit hospital and fled in an ambulance with three people inside, police say. No one was hurt.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons requires at least one armed officer among the three guards who accompany maximum-security inmates outside prison gates, but it leaves the decision up to the warden for minimum- or low-security inmates.

Aldridge said guns typically are seized when an armed officer gets too close, with his weapon facing the prisoner.

He advised that if two guards are used, the one who interacts with the prisoner should be unarmed and the armed officer should be at a safe distance. That's the system Maryland adopted in 2006 after correctional officer Jeffery Wroten was slain in a Hagerstown hospital, allegedly by an inmate who then used Wroten's gun to hijack a taxi cab before he was captured.

The other recent episode in Maryland was in November, also at Laurel Regional Hospital. A suspected car thief - not a state prison inmate - seized a state trooper's gun and fired shots. He was captured hours later following an intense search.

One of the unions representing Maryland prison workers has questioned the safety of placing inmates and armed guards together in hospitals.

"It's just like their not carrying weapons inside the prison," a prohibition common in corrections work, said Patrick Moran, Maryland director for the Association of Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees. "It's a confined area. There are all sorts of opportunities for things to happen."

Not all correctional workers agree.

Janet Anderson, spokeswoman for the Maryland Classified Employees Association, another prison workers' union, said all officers guarding hospitalized inmates should be armed, but that officers need more training in protecting their guns.

"If an inmate sees that both officers have guns, the chance of that inmate making a move to grab that gun and escape should be significantly reduced," Anderson said.

The two unions said they would prefer that all inmate medical care be provided inside prisons or at secure hospital units. The state corrections department provides full-time guards for one such unit, at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore.

But spokesman Rick Binetti of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services said it's unrealistic to think the state can provide in-house hospital services for 23,000 inmates in more than 20 institutions. And he said decisions about where to take an inmate are made by emergency medical workers - not prison officials.

"It's obviously something the department is concerned about, and we're going to take a long look at that," Binetti said.


Associated Press writer Alex Dominguez in Baltimore contributed to this report.


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