Phyllis Scott was waiting for the day her son would be released from prison to return to East Baltimore, and she hoped he could steer clear of trouble in the future.
But that day never came.
Malcolm Jerrod "Rod" Pridget, who was just shy of his 20th birthday, left the Western Correctional Institution in late November in critical condition after sustaining severe head injuries in his cell. He died at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center a couple of days later — another victim in a recent spate of deadly violence in the state's prisons.
"I need some answers," said Scott, who found her son swollen and bloodied at the hospital. She has pressed prison officials for details about his death and wonders why no arrest has been made.
Even as Gov. Martin O'Malley and state lawmakers celebrate an impending end to Maryland's death penalty, killings in state prisons — some involving inmates such as Pridget, who was serving a relatively short sentence on drug charges — show no signs of tapering off. Mourning relatives and civil liberties advocates say that the trend is unacceptable and that prison officials should be doing more to ensure the safety of prisoners while in state custody.
Despite successful efforts to curb assaults and gather intelligence on prison gangs, seven prisoners have been killed in the past seven months, more than the number in many recent years. The most recent death occurred Friday — an inmate identified as Javaughn Young, 26, who had been beaten Thursday at the medium-security Maryland Correctional Institution in Jessup, state police said.
Most of the killings have involved violent attacks, with inmates found bludgeoned or stabbed in their cells. As in Pridget's death at the maximum-security Cumberland prison, other inmates are usually suspected in the attacks, police and prison officials say.
Gary Maynard, the state's corrections secretary, said the recent homicide numbers constitute an increase over any similar six-month period since 2009, but are not linked by "any patterns or common circumstances that would indicate any issues related to the operational safety and security of our institutions."
The statistics show just part of the security picture, he said. Since he took over in 2007, the department has made huge strides in combating violence among the more than 20,000 prisoners in Maryland, and violence has been declining, Maynard said.
In the year before he took office, two correctional officers were killed, and another was nearly killed in early 2007, he said. Maynard closed the maximum-security Maryland House of Correction in Jessup and launched efforts to work more closely with law enforcement agencies to share intelligence on gangs — an initiative that improved the department's ability to keep staff members safe and to keep rival inmates separated behind bars, he said.
The communication efforts have paid off, officials said. Serious assaults on inmates are down 47 percent since 2007, from 271 to 144. And serious assaults on prison staff dropped 65 percent over the same period, from 20 to 7. The system is on pace for another decline in assaults this fiscal year, officials said. No officer has been killed since 2006.
Still, homicides have continued to occur, stubbornly bucking other trends. According to data provided by the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, there were four homicides in Maryland prisons in 2012, four in 2011, none in 2010, six in 2009 and three in 2008. Four inmates have died from injuries this year.
Some death penalty supporters have expressed concern that its elimination will remove a deterrent to such killings, but opponents of capital punishment dismiss that idea. O'Malley's office directed questions on the issue to the corrections department.
Maynard said that in four of the recent killings, the victims' cellmates are the suspects. Such attacks are hard to prevent, despite screenings by caseworkers, psychiatric staff and social workers to assess cellmate compatibility and the possibility of assault, he said.
"Generally, where the cellmate is involved, there aren't any gang-related or pre-meditated 'hit'-like circumstances involved," Maynard said in an email. "They are usually spontaneous, when one cellmate becomes angry enough to make a bad decision."
Maryland has 380 prisoners serving life without parole, three of whom received the sentence after committing homicides while behind bars on lesser charges, said Rick Binetti, a corrections department spokesman. Since 2000, three inmates who were already serving life without parole have killed other prisoners, he said.
How Maryland's rate of homicides behind bars compares to those in other state prison systems is not easily determined.
In a Justice Department study of prison deaths nationwide between 2000 and 2009, Maryland's baseline homicide rate per 100,000 prisoners was the second-highest in the country.
However, the study's lead statistician, Margaret Noonan, warned that the data cannot be used to make direct comparisons among states, because the figures are more dependent on state demographics than on prison system performance. For instance, Noonan said, statistics suggest that state systems with more inmates who have committed homicides outside prisons — Maryland has a steady stream from Baltimore and elsewhere — will have more homicide victims behind bars.
What's more, she said, using the data to rank states could give the misleading impression that those atop the rankings are experiencing large numbers of prison killings, which is not the case.