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Md. Prison Panel Urges Focus On Gangs, Health Care

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HAGERSTOWN, Md. (AP) — A state task force on prison violence urged policymakers Monday to take a systemwide approach to reducing gang activity and improving inmate mental health care.

The panel headed by state Sen. Verna Jones, D-Baltimore, and Delegate Christopher Shank, R-Washington, sent its report to Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley after 2½ years of work. Shank was elected to the Senate in November and takes office this month.

At least three of the 13 recommendations deal with gang activity, including one urging correctional and law enforcement agencies to use common software to share information about gangs and gang members.

“The use of one gang software would shorten the time put into validating a person as a gang member,” the report says.

The panel said it would support legislation to standardize criteria for identifying gang members by factors such as hand signals, style of dress and tattoos.

The report tallied 433 instances of prison gang violence from January to October 2009, including 168 involving the Bloods and 105 involving the Black Guerrilla Family. Most involved assaults on other inmates.

The report urges creation of a new Mental Health Assessment Center to diagnose disorders and develop individual inmate treatment plans.

“In providing better, more efficient mental health treatment and medications, the correctional facilities can reduce the number of violent outbursts and violent incidents,” the report states. “Better mental health treatment would make the population less difficult to manage on a daily basis.”

The panel also urged the governor and General Assembly to upgrade cell-phone smuggling in prisons from a misdemeanor to a felony.

In 2008, Maryland correctional officers confiscated approximately 847 cell phones, the report notes.

“The cell phones are being used to communicate with the outside community to facilitate crimes, coordinate attacks, and to intimidate witnesses,” the report states.

The panel urged the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services to consider building new prisons and closing older facilities.

It also recommended more training opportunities and better pay for prison workers so they’ll be less tempted to support gangs and violent inmates by delivering contraband.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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