At least 18 inmates were seriously stabbed or cut and dozens of others were injured when a "major fight" broke out between two groups of prisoners at the Metropolitan Transition Center in Baltimore yesterday, authorities said.
The inmates with the worst wounds were taken to area hospitals - three with critical injuries that could be considered life-threatening, said Maj. Priscilla Doggett, spokeswoman for the Maryland Division of Correction. No corrections officers were injured.
Doggett said the fight broke out about 1:30 p.m. in the exercise yard of the facility in the downtown state prison complex off Madison Street. Several weapons were recovered after the melee, and all appeared to be handmade knives, she said.
Two sources familiar with the incident said it involved two rival gangs.
"I have no information in terms of what precipitated this," Doggett said, adding that she didn't know whether gangs played a role.
She did not know how many inmates were in the yard or how many corrections officers were guarding them at the time of the melee.
It is not unusual for 100 or more inmates to be in a prison yard at one time, with as few as two or three unarmed corrections officers on the ground circulating among them, according to knowledgeable corrections sources.
Other guards, armed with weapons, typically stand watch from the prison walls and towers.
Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, characterized what happened as a "major fight."
"It was not a riot," Vernarelli said. "A riot is when you lose control of a prison."
The prison, a minimum security institution that houses inmates with an average of two years or less remaining on their sentences, is now in lockdown. While the lockdown is in effect, prisoners are largely confined to their cells denied visitation and other privileges.
Maryland's prisons were troubled with increasing violence through much of former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s four-year administration, and it became an issue during last year's gubernatorial race when Democrat Martin O'Malley ousted Ehrlich.
A spokesman for O'Malley, Rick Abbruzzese, said the governor was briefed on the situation and was monitoring it. Since his election, O'Malley replaced the state's public safety secretary and closed the violence-ridden and antiquated House of Correction, where an officer was killed by inmates last year.
Yesterday's prison fight was unusual for the large number of inmates involved and the many who suffered injuries serious enough to require hospitalization.
"That is the first time I can remember with that many patients happening at that facility. That is rare," said Baltimore City Fire Division Chief Lloyd Carter, who oversees medics and ambulances for the city and who has worked at the department for 24 years.
He estimated that 35 paramedics and other fire officials came to the prison to help.
Carter said that when paramedics arrived around 2 p.m., the injured had been already separated into two groups.
"They were in two separate areas, completely locked off from each other ... so there was no continuation of the violence." The fire commander estimated that there were 10 in one group and 35 in the other.
As he walked through the prison, Carter recalled, he saw numerous corrections officers, including some in riot gear. By the time the paramedics arrived, he said, the tensions had been smoothed over.
"At that point even the inmates are more concerned about getting help," he said. "The violence had subsided. A lot of inmates were still in the yard."
Entering a prison is always tense for paramedics, but Carter said the incident went smoothly under the circumstances. "It is not like waking into Johns Hopkins Hospital, but they [corrections officers] did an excellent job of making you feel safe."
He said that some inmates had puncture wounds to the chest and others had stab wounds and cuts on different parts of their bodies.
Eighteen of the inmates were transported to local hospitals, officials said.
The most seriously injured inmates were taken to Maryland Shock Trauma Center. Others were taken to Johns Hopkins, Sinai and Union Memorial hospitals.
Authorities did not release the identities of the inmates who were hospitalized or describe the extent of their injuries.
They said that investigators are still trying to determine exactly what happened. Criminal charges are expected to be filed against those found to be responsible, they said.
The lockdown at the prison will be maintained indefinitely, said Doggett, the prison spokeswoman. An emergency command center has been activated, which is standard operating procedure after a major incident.
Late yesterday afternoon, corrections officers could be seen standing guard with shotguns, and police cordoned off the area with yellow police tape, as banks of TV camera crews watched and helicopters hovered overhead.
The prison is a minimum-security facility that houses 1,732 inmates.
It is housed in part of the former Maryland Penitentiary, an imposing, gothic structure built in 1811 that was once a maximum-security prison.
"What happened here today shows that prisons in Maryland are still dangerous," said Darryl Williams, the president of AFSCME Local 1427, the union that represents corrections officers at the facility and five other institutions in the state.
Williams said that AFSCME is working with O'Malley and his administration to make prisons safer in Maryland.
Asked whether there were not enough officers at the facility to ensure safety, he replied, "We have a staffing problem at all of our institutions."
Sun reporter Andrew A. Green contributed to this article.