The telephones in an activity room of the Maryland House of Correction at Jessup were Robert William Sykes' lifeline to the outside world. Saturday night, one of them transmitted his last words to his family -- "Hold on."
About half an hour later, the phone rang again at the family home in the 200 block of N. Payson St. in West Baltimore. Instead of Sykes, a prison official was on the line telling the family that the prisoner had bled to death, apparently at the hands of another inmate.
Division of Correction spokeswoman Maxine Eldridge said Sykes, 24, died from a severe neck injury inflicted about 9:25 p.m. Saturday, apparently after a dispute with at least one other inmate in the H dormitory dayroom. Ms. Eldridge said correctional officers and prison medical personnel gave help "immediately," but they and an ambulance crew arriving 10 to 15 minutes after the attack were unable to revive him.
Sykes had served about 4 1/2 years of a 12-year sentence for armed robbery and a handgun violation in Baltimore, Ms. Eldridge said. Sykes' family said he had been at the House of Correction for nearly three years after a transfer from the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center, commonly called "Supermax," where he was kept for more than a year because of behavioral problems.
Ms. Eldridge said she did not have further details of the attack, including the type of weapon that inflicted the fatal injury.
Ms. Eldridge said an internal investigation of the incident was being conducted. She said she was sure the activity room was "supervised" by a correctional officer, but she could not say whether an officer was in the room at the time Sykes was attacked.
Frank Bryant, Sykes' brother, said that he heard -- while on the phone Saturday night -- another inmate exchange words with Sykes about using the activity room pool table. Sykes accused the other inmate of using the table out of turn, Mr. Bryant said.
"Robert and somebody started arguing," Sykes' mother, Shirley Bryant, said yesterday. "Then he walked away from the phone. They still had the phone off the hook waiting. After a while it got quiet -- real quiet. You couldn't hear anything at all. They decided to hang up the phone."
Mrs. Bryant said her son was "no angel." Sykes had had trouble with the law before being sentenced to prison on the armed robbery and handgun charges. Two years were added to his sentence when he was caught with a weapon at the Maryland Correctional Institution at Hagerstown in 1991, Mrs. Bryant said. She said Sykes was beaten by a number of guards in that incident.
In a letter to Mrs. Bryant after the incident, Division of Correction Commissioner Richard A. Lanham Sr. apologized for Sykes' injuries but wrote that "they were received as a result of his own actions, however, and incidents such as this cannot be tolerated."
Mrs. Bryant said her son had been infraction-free for at least the past year and was looking forward to a parole hearing this fall. She had been lobbying officials about the possibility of Sykes serving time on home monitoring.
Veronica Myers, a friend, said Sykes would call her every morning at 6 o'clock to chat. He often phoned the house on Payson Street several times a day, asking for news, especially about his son, Robert Jr., 6.
Mr. Bryant said he, his brother and Sykes' girlfriend were talking about a cookout just before Sykes was killed.
Mrs. Bryant said she was frustrated because the Division of Correction had given her very few details about her son's death. She could not understand how it could have happened while his family was on the phone with him.
Robert was "still a person's child," Mrs. Bryant said. "He's not just a number."