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Prison's end detailed

The Baltimore Sun

Just two days remained before the covert operation to close the notorious Maryland House of Correction in Jessup would be completed.

State officials had planned for everything, it seemed, everything, but this: lousy weather.

The call came in about 1 p.m. to the conference room-turned command center, a bland room in Reisterstown Plaza, where dry-erase boards plotted out strategies ranging from bus routes and bed space to restroom breaks for shackled prisoners traveling long distances.

New Jersey state police were reporting weather forecasts of icy conditions. The bus of maximum-security inmates - some of Maryland's most hardened and violent prisoners - had to be on the New Jersey Turnpike in a few hours.

Assistant Commissioner James V. Peguese hung up the phone and shared the news with other top officials. Acting Commissioner of Corrections John A. Rowley quickly called Gary D. Maynard, the state's secretary of public safety and correctional services.

Everyone had to move quickly.

It was March 15, and the state was just two days away from ending a highly coordinated and intricate operation to close the antiquated Maryland prison in less than two weeks, emptying it of more than 800 inmates in almost complete secrecy. The plan involved a huge reshuffling with 1,500 moves, affecting nearly all the state's institutions, and ultimately sending 97 of Maryland's most violent prisoners out of state.

"We had been doing this for almost two weeks and been successful at keeping it confidential and with no one getting hurt," said Rowley. "We were concerned that if we didn't make the move, then we didn't know how bad the snow would be, whether the turnpike would be closed a few days. That would have caused a problem. These were the last transfers out of state."

The inmates were headed through New Jersey to the Federal Bureau of Prisons in Fort Devens, Mass., where they were then to be dispersed to federal prisons across the country.

In the end, bad weather was just about the only thing public safety and correctional officials hadn't planned for.

"It was very stressful," recalled Assistant Commissioner J. Michael Stouffer. "There was a lot to do. Everything had to go to plan or everything would go awry."

Assistant Commissioner Wendell France, also in the command center, said the central transportation unit had been "laid down," ready to activate at midnight on March 16.

"It would be a tremendous security problem to have that number of maximum-security inmates on the highway stranded," said France. "We couldn't keep them in Supermax. We would have had to find another place."

New Jersey agreed to extend the deadline to get to the turnpike to 7 p.m. By 5 p.m. on March 15, the units were mobilized. They rushed to the Supermax in Baltimore, where the inmates - some from the House of Correction, others from other institutions - had been grouped.

With the help of local and state police escorts, they were on the New Jersey Turnpike by 7 p.m.

Crisis averted - an apparent early success for Maynard, the newly appointed head of Maryland's troubled prison system.

Expecting the worst

Maynard, 63, had read about the prison in Jessup, nicknamed "The Cut," before coming to Maryland from Iowa's system. He was familiar with its long history of violence and corruption - in the past year, one correctional officer and three inmates have been killed.

So he knew to expect the worst when he walked into the imposing brick complex in Jessup on Feb. 6.

The 128-year-old prison was in appalling condition, he said.

"I saw the age of the facility and some of the blind corners," said Maynard. "The most disturbing thing was probably the catwalks in front of the cells. It was obvious that if an officer was walking and there was some kind of problem ... they were within the reach of the inmates.

"I could see why it was a place of violence."

Several weeks after his visit, at a meeting with Gov. Martin O'Malley regarding a government performance management system, Maynard brought along a presentation demonstrating the prison's poor conditions.

He argued that the prison could be converted from maximum to minimum security in 30 days, rather than the proposed three-year plan.

O'Malley recalls that Maynard also raised the idea of closing the prison permanently, a recommendation from his transition team. A timetable was not discussed, but O'Malley said he gave Maynard the green light to start planning.

"My instructions to him were to go ahead and close it as soon as he can, without compromising safety," said O'Malley. "I didn't hold him to a firm, hard deadline. I didn't want to do anything, even inadvertently, to cause them to compromise safety just to meet some sort of imposed deadline."

On March 2, an inmate in the House of Correction repeatedly stabbed correctional officer Edouardo F. Edouazin, 28, with a homemade knife.

At Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore that day, Maynard talked to a group of about 25 correctional officers. He still recalls the fear, hurt and anger etched into their faces.

"I told them I was going to take a hard look at the House of Correction," he said. "That I didn't think it was a safe place to work. That if they just be patient for a few days, I was going to do something with it, and they'd just have to trust me. And they said they would."

That night, back at home in Towson, Maynard said he made the decision.

They would do it now. Stealthily and quickly, he would orchestrate the emptying of the troubled prison and close its doors forever.

"I just thought, 'We've got to do better than this,' " said Maynard.

Ambitious plan

On March 3, a Saturday, Maynard called together his closest advisers in an emergency meeting. "We've got to evacuate, we've got to get every person out, and we've got to do that by the 15th of March," he told them.

"I didn't want to prolong it because I knew every day that went by, there was a chance something could happen," he said.

Though everyone essentially agreed with Maynard, some were wary of the ambitious timetable.

Most importantly, he told them, the operation was to be kept completely secret. Inmates, correctional guards and even wardens could not know the ultimate purpose. If word got out, everyone's safety would be jeopardized, he said.

In the end, only 12 people knew the full details of the plan, Maynard said - Maynard's two deputies, Rowley and his four assistant commissioners, O'Malley, the union leadership and the chairmen of two legislative committees.

Rowley delegated roles to his four assistant commissioners. Those in charge of the east and west regions began assessing their facilities for space and repairs so that inmates from the soon-to-be-closed prison could move in.

The assistant commissioner for programs and services was given the task of moving inmates around the House of Correction. And Peguese, the assistant commissioner for security operations, activated the special response and crisis management teams.

About 10 percent of the population was reclassified and downgraded, said Maynard.

Gang affiliations were taken into account when deciding who would go where, said officials.

Federal officials agreed to take 60 of the state's most violent inmates. And 37 other prisoners, also labeled as among the state's most dangerous, were transported to Virginia and Kentucky.

Those out-of-state trips required reshuffling because not all of the prisoners moved out of Maryland came from the House of Correction.

The first two buses left March 6, leaving for the Hagerstown complex. Dozens followed, some buses leaving under the cover of darkness.

Each trip followed the same protocol.

Prisoners were roused and shackled, with waist and ankle chains and handcuffs attached to a security box. Strip searches checked for contraband; personal belongings had been inventoried and packed by officers in advance.

Buses were surrounded by vans with special response teams and canine units. Trips continued, almost uninterrupted, for nearly two weeks.

Out-of-state trips included planned restroom breaks - always at other institutions.

The prisoners didn't suspect anything, officials said, and even the correctional officers and wardens involved weren't made aware of the final plan.

Everyone believed the long-term plan was to convert the prison into a minimum-security institution.

So when more than 100 medium-security inmates were evacuated first, followed by more than 300 maximum-security prisoners, everyone thought the conversion was just taking place sooner than expected.

House of Correction Warden Gary Hornbaker said he went along with the transfers, suspecting nothing. It wasn't until the March 15 order to evacuate more than 300 minimum-security prisoners that reality struck.

His prison, the House of Correction, was closing.

The minimum-security prisoners were packed up that Friday and moved over the weekend to various Maryland institutions.

The last inmate walked out the doors at 8:10 p.m. March 17.

Hornbaker said the staff took a picture of the final prisoner. "It didn't really hit home until the last man left," he said. "That was a historic moment, when that last man left.

"It was kind of solemn," he added. "We were just like, 'That's it. That was the last guy out. Now what?' "

Rowley e-mailed Maynard and told him the final inmate had cleared. Two days later, to great fanfare, the governor, Maynard, correctional officials, union leaders and reporters descended upon the empty prison to mark its official closing.

"For about 50 years we have talked about the need to close this functionally obsolete facility," O'Malley said at the closing. "In about five weeks, we were actually able to close this functionally obsolete facility."

The crowd erupted into applause.

sumathi.reddy@baltsun.com

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