The heart of an emergency

The Baltimore Sun

It is common for photojournalists to be called on a moment's notice to cover breaking news.

On Friday, June 1, a fight broke out in a prison yard at Baltimore's Metropolitan Transition Center and I was sent to cover the chaos. I was expecting ambulances, officers and a few hurt men. The reality was much uglier - 18 stabbed or otherwise injured inmates, some critically.

Lines of emergency vehicles waited to take their turn, pulling into the prison gates to pick up injured prisoners and then pulling back out. Only two vehicles at a time could fit inside. Each time an inmate was brought out an officer equipped with a large rifle would pace frantically back and forth on a catwalk, often yelling down to the officers handling inmates below.

Officers backed the media up on the sidewalk outside the open gate, roping us off with yellow police tape. They said it was for our safety. A few of us joked, "Oh, yeah, we feel much safer now." But as events unfolded, including what looked like inmates running wild, flashing gang signs, peace signs, smiling for the cameras, I started to feel as if the police tape and distance really were prudent for our personal welfare.

The officer on the catwalk was still yelling, a police dog was barking its head off and lunged at a cameraman who got too close. A man next to me who actually works in the prison commented on how out of control the situation was and frequently is inside the prison walls. His words made me nervous.

My sense of security began to fade even more as a throng of inmates came sauntering down the side of the prison. A gate which looked to be normally closed was wide open. There were dozens of inmates and only a handful of officers attending them. The mass of inmates fidgeted along a wall, taking in the hurried scene just as we did.

Finally, a few officers led the many prisoners out onto Madison Street before taking them back behind the prison walls. Members of the media looked at one another and wondered aloud, "Is that normal or even OK?"

"What happened here today shows that prisons in Maryland are still dangerous. ... We have a staffing problem at all our institutions," said Darryl Williams, the president of AFSCME Local 1427, which repesents the prison guards.

This was the third violent prison incident I have covered since August - including the stabbing death of David McGuinn, a Maryland corrections officer at the now-closed House of Correction in Jessup - and, to me, Williams' statement seemed to be a glaring truth.

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