Prison chief's death highlights safety concerns

Posted at 5:33 PM, Mar 26, 2013
and last updated 2013-03-26 17:38:21-04

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The newest warden was sworn in Friday to oversee South Carolina's Lee Correctional Institution, a prison described by Gov. Nikki Haley as a dangerous place "housing the worst of the worst of our convicts."

It was a milestone in the career of Mike McCall, but the warden refused to let his wife accompany him to the ceremony.

"He didn't want anybody seeing the TV or the newspapers to know what she looks like," for fear she could be become a target, said Clark Newsom, spokesman for the South Carolina Department of Corrections. "It's the nature of the business. The average person doesn't realize how dangerous this can be."

The shooting death last week of Colorado's prison chief has focused attention on the danger faced by those who oversee the prisons housing the nation's convicts. Prison guards, wardens and correctional system administrators have been targeted in the past, often by convicts who had been freed after serving their sentence.

A former Colorado inmate killed in a shootout Thursday with Texas authorities is a suspect in the death of Tom Clements, the Colorado corrections director shot at his front door. Colorado authorities say evidence gathered in Texas provided a "strong lead" in the case but stressed investigators had not yet confirmed a link between the crime and Evan Spencer Ebel, the paroled inmate and a member of the white supremacist prison gang the 211s.

It remained unclear whether Clements was targeted when he was shot Tuesday and why.

Gov. John Hickenlooper, who hired Clements, said in a statement Friday that he is a longtime friend of the suspect's father, attorney Jack Ebel, who testified two years ago before state lawmakers that solitary confinement was destroying his son's psyche. Hickenlooper confirmed he mentioned the case to Clements as an example of why the prison system needed reform before the job was offered, but the governor said he did not mention Evan Ebel by name.

Officials took additional security measures after Clements' death and placed the state prisons on lockdown Friday.

Correctional professionals interviewed in the aftermath of the Colorado shooting say the growing influence of prison gangs, their ability to communicate with affiliates on the outside through smuggled cellphones and the ease with which people can be found and tracked online have made the job even more dangerous for them and their families.

"In light of what has happened, certainly I think we need to take another look at safety and security," said Tom Beauclair, the former deputy director of the U.S. Department of Justice's National Institute of Corrections and the former director of the Idaho Department of Correction. "These gangs have become more powerful."

Clements is at least the second head of a state prison system to be killed. The top administrator of the Oregon Department of Corrections, Michael Francke, was stabbed to death outside his office in 1989 in what prosecutors described as a bungled car burglary. A former state prison inmate was found guilty of aggravated murder in 1991 and sentenced to life in prison.

Guards and wardens also have been targeted.

In South Carolina two years ago, Capt. Robert Johnson, a 15-year veteran of the same prison that just got a new warden, was shot six times in his home. He survived but required eight surgeries and months of rehabilitation.

No one has been charged, but investigators believe the hit was orchestrated from inside the prison by an inmate using a smuggled cellphone.

Corrections officials in California, New York and other states would not reveal what precautions they suggest for prison personnel when off-duty, preferring to keep that information confidential.

"However, the tragedy in Colorado underscores the dangers faced by our agents in the field and our employees in our institutions," Deborah Hoffman, spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said in an email. Prison employees "understand these dangers and take every precaution to keep themselves, their colleagues, and their families safe."

Among them is Joe Baumann, a 28-year veteran California correctional officer.

He said he rarely leaves his home packing fewer than two weapons out of fear he'll run into one of the ex-convicts he oversaw at the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, 50 miles east of Los Angeles. It's one of the lessons he's picked up over the years, a precaution driven home by this week's slaying in Colorado.

"Everybody's always on their Ps and Qs, anyway — making sure you're wearing a jacket over your uniform, don't put your uniform shirt on until you're in the (prison) parking lot, taking a different route to and from work," he said.

But he added, "With a situation like you have in Colorado, it's kind of hard to protect yourself from someone who shows up at your front door."

Some states have tried to address the concern with provisions exempting various government employees from restrictions on conceal-and-carry weapon privileges. The exemptions allow certain people to carry weapons on campuses or in churches and government buildings, where other permit holders still must give up their weapons.

In Georgia, the list includes "wardens, superintendents and keepers of correctional institutions." Georgia lawmakers this year are considering a bill that would add retired judges to the list.

By comparison, Oregon prohibits weapons on prison property, even for guards. The prison guard union is pushing for legislation allowing its officers to leave a gun in their locked vehicle, noting the potential danger they face on their way to and from work.

That danger is all too real for guards and wardens in some states.

Illinois correctional officers still recall the fatal shooting in 1985 of an assistant state prison warden who was shot to death outside a Chicago tavern. A former gang member was arrested, but his conviction was later overturned by the Illinois Supreme Court.

Prosecutors suggested the suspect shot the warden, Virdeen Willis Jr,. in retaliation for a scuffle with a gang leader inside Pontiac Correctional Center.

Ralph Portwood, union president for the maximum-security Stateville Correctional Center outside of Chicago, said the only protection guards have beyond the prison walls is their own wits.

A prison guard for nearly 19 years, he said staff have been told that certain gangs have tried to direct people on the street to "get you" — including suggestions that they watch for guards refueling their vehicles at gas stations near the prison.

"It happens more than people think with ex-cons walking up to us on the street," he said. "They recognize us before we recognize them."

He said he once was in a Chicago nightclub restroom when a former convict with whom he'd "had words" in the past walked up to him and said, "If I wanted, I could have got you right now."

"He was trying to see what I was going to say," Portwood said. "I said 'I have most of my guys with me,'" referring to other guards.


Boone reported from Boise, Idaho, and Thompson reported from Sacramento, Calif. Associated Press writers Bill Barrow in Atlanta, Jonathan Cooper in Salem, Ore., Phillip Rawls in Montgomery, Ala., Mike Virtanen in Albany, N.Y., Tammy Webber in Chicago and Andrew Welsh-Huggins in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this report.