Prison remains locked down

The Baltimore Sun

A day after 18 inmates were seriously injured in an apparent gang fight in a Baltimore prison yard, the Metropolitan Transition Center remained locked down yesterday as authorities began interviewing the more than 100 men who were in the exercise yard at the time of the melee.

Three of the injured prisoners remained in serious condition at area hospitals yesterday, a spokesman with the Maryland Division of Correction said. It was unclear whether any of the other 15 hospitalized inmates were returned to the prison, formerly the maximum-security Maryland State Penitentiary.

Corrections officers manned the closed gates yesterday to a street that runs through the downtown state prison complex, checking employee IDs and fielding questions from inmates' relatives.

Although prison officials would not confirm that Friday's stabbings occurred during a fight between rival gangs, the corrections officers at one prison gate told a concerned woman yesterday afternoon that her incarcerated husband was probably not involved in the fight unless he is associated with a gang.

"If he doesn't have any affiliations, he wasn't involved," the uniformed officer told Michelle Davis, whose husband is serving a six-month sentence for drug possession.

The fight broke out about 1:30 p.m. Friday in the exercise yard of the prison complex, off Madison Street, leaving at least 18 inmates seriously stabbed or cut and dozens of others injured. Several weapons - all apparently handmade knives - were recovered after the brawl, authorities said.

No corrections officers were injured.

As authorities continued to investigate the prison violence in Baltimore, another stabbing occurred in another state correctional facility. Two inmates returning to their cells from lunch stabbed each other about noon at the Jessup Correctional Institute, a maximum-security prison that houses about 1,300 men, according to Maj. Priscilla Doggett, a DOC spokeswoman.

Armed with handmade weapons, both inmates suffered stab wounds to their upper torsos and were taken to an area hospital with injuries that were not considered life-threatening, Doggett said. The prison was not locked down, she said.

That was not the case at the Metropolitan Transition Center. Located in an imposing Gothic structure built in 1811, the minimum-security prison - formerly known as the Maryland Pen - houses about 1,700 inmates with an average of two years or less remaining of their sentences.

Yesterday, all prisoner movement in the institution was restricted except for medical appointments, said George Gregory, a DOC spokesman. Inmates received meals in their cells - as opposed to the dining hall - and all recreation and educational programs were canceled. In addition, prisoners could not leave their cells to shower and could not receive visitors, he said.

The lockdown will continue until the prison administrators "see fit" to return to normal operations, Gregory said.

Six detectives with the internal investigative unit of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services are assigned to the stabbings and have interviewed many of the injured inmates - including some more than once, said Mark Vernarelli, a department spokesman.

"As always, the key to their investigation will be the cooperation of the inmates," he said. "All too often, the disdain the combatants have for their enemies is matched or exceeded by their unwillingness to cooperate with investigators. For the sake of all the inmates and staff, we hope that will not be the case this time."

In addition to the department's internal investigation unit, the prison's intelligence officers and DOC investigators will also be working on the case, Vernarelli said.

He said the department could not release the names of the injured inmates, explaining that it was possible that family members of all the injured inmates might not have been notified and that releasing names could compromise the investigation. He would not comment on whether the fight was gang-related.

"Until they conduct all their interviews and find out exactly what happened, I don't think they're going to be able to pin that one down," Vernarelli said. "We have to be very careful right now about what we assume and what we say. We want investigators to have the best chance of answering many of these unanswered questions."

The prison received a steady stream of phone calls from inmates' relatives, concerned that their family member might have been injured in the fight. Unable to get through by phone, Michelle Davis took a bus to the prison to inquire in person about her husband of 10 years, Bobby Davis.

"I'm a worry-fanatic," the 37-year-old woman told the corrections officers at the prison gate. "I was up all night, cleaning and doing everything I could to keep busy."

In addition to raising the issue of gang involvement in the fight, the officers told her that someone from the prison would have called or come to her home if her husband had been injured.

Moments later, Davis finally got through to the prison on her cell phone and was told that her husband was not involved.

"That's like a relief - a big relief - to know for certain," she said, standing in a small patch of shade on the sidewalk outside the prison. "I have to call his mama in South Carolina."

The stabbings occurred on the heels of a wave of prison violence in recent years that has left two correctional officers and several inmates dead. In March, Gov. Martin O'Malley closed the Maryland House of Correction, an antiquated and notorious maximum-security prison in Jessup where inmate violence had spiraled out of control and corruption had run rampant.

Officials with a union that represents corrections officers expressed concern that the stabbings Friday and yesterday reflect persistent problems in the state's prisons.

National leaders with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the union that represents 80,000 corrections staff members nationwide, are expected to arrive in Maryland tomorrow to meet with state corrections staff members.

Said Joe Lawrence, a union representative, "AFSCME is deeply concerned - and has been - about the safety problems in Maryland's prisons."


Violence at the Maryland Pen

October 1984: A convicted murderer at the Maryland Penitentiary kills Officer Herman L. Toulson Jr., the first Maryland correctional officer killed while on duty. Three other guards are hurt in the disturbances that follow, and several months later, seven correctional officers are charged with beating three inmates.

February 1985: A convicted murderer is found stabbed to death in the cell of another inmate.

April 1986: A convicted murderer at the Pen stabs a female correctional officer as she tries to lock him in his cell.

April 1986: Three inmates are stabbed in the Pen exercise yard, apparently in a fight over drugs smuggled into the prison.

December 1990: A correctional officer in the segregation unit is stabbed 11 times by an inmate.

December 1992: An inmate serving life plus 20 years for murder is fatally stabbed in the throat and chest as he walks through a recreation area.

July 1998: A riot results in injuries to eight correctional officers and a prison psychologist.

June 2007: Eighteen inmates are stabbed or cut in a clash between rival groups of prisoners at the Metropolitan Transition Center.

[John-John Williams IV and Jennifer McMenamin]

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