Tales of the Penitentiary

The Baltimore Sun

Inside the dark gray granite walls of the former Maryland Penitentiary, the centuries-old castle structure in downtown Baltimore, there's a tiny office crowded with old photographs and prison relics that Andrew Stritch calls his "mini-museum."

Stritch, the longest-serving civilian employee with the Division of Correction, celebrated the 40th anniversary of his official hire date Friday. He has devoted his career to helping men transition from life behind bars to life on the streets, spending the past two decades at the oldest operating prison in America.

It's a place he has come to know and love - so much so that he helped research a book about it and has become the penitentiary's unofficial historian and its official tour guide. He can't walk more than five feet on the 15-acre grounds that date to 1811 without pausing to point out a piece of history or tell a tale.

The real history of the prison, Stritch said, is the story of its prisoners. He told a tale about Robert Smith, the inmate who in 1957 scaled scaffolding around the chimney of the power house in protest. He descended a short time later with a new nickname: "Smokestack Smitty."

In his four decades as a corrections employee, Stritch has collected a personal assortment of prisoner tales. He remembers Floyd Alexander from 1981, who slept in a cell near his office. The inmate had a cyst on his hip, and his cries of pain disturbed Stritch so much that he sought medical attention for him.

An outside doctor eventually saw Alexander, diagnosed his hairline hip fracture and prescribed appropriate medicine, Stritch said.

The man thanked him every time he saw him, Stritch said. Occasionally, other former inmates would thank Stritch, too, he said, when they saw him on the bus or walking down the street.

"You can't fake caring about a job like this," Stritch said. He said he knows that what he does can change someone's life - or at least set the person on the right course.

Stritch, 66, is an institution within an institution.

"He is a wealth of knowledge," said Gary Hornbaker, an assistant commissioner who has spent 33 years in the division. "His experience is unmatched by anyone else in the system."

Stritch's career with the state began in 1965 as an employee of the Division of Parole and Probation. He was 23 and picked the job after graduating from Loyola College and filling out a career survey. His brief experience in that division piqued his interest in "what real people have to do to make a living," he said, and set him up for a long career as a transition specialist.

An only child from South Baltimore, Stritch said he had grown up thinking everyone just fell into a career. The young parole employee soon learned that ex-offenders had a much more difficult time finding work. He has changed duties just a handful of times since then, most of them dealing with prison re-entry.

Since 1988, through eight wardens, Stritch has worked at the Maryland Transition Center, as the penitentiary is now called. As transition coordinator, he connects the 1,700 prisoners there with services such as drug and alcohol addiction treatment, job placement and counseling. Most of the inmates are in their final 18 months behind bars, often the tail end of a long prison term.

Teleacia Jones, a volunteer services coordinator who has worked with Stritch for the past five years, said his understated, compassionate manner helps him get the job done.

"He is a people person," Jones said. "He can talk to anyone."

The transition center is a far cry from its days as the penitentiary, when as many as 2,000 maximum-security inmates were housed there. But as Stritch can point out, there are signs of its old life everywhere.

"State Penitentiary" is etched into the granite above the entry on Forrest Avenue. Look closely at the entry and faces emerge from the granite. There's the first prisoner, a man known as "Negro Bob," and there's John F. Weyler, the longest-serving warden, who oversaw the prison's major expansion in the late 1890s.

The castle facade with its blazing white lead and copper roof is the best-known but not the oldest remaining structure in the prison, which officially opened in 1811 after seven years of construction. That honor belongs to a modest, two-story brick building that opened in 1829 as a five-story unit for prisoners. It lost levels to a fire during a prison riot in 1966.

The outside of this building tells its story. Varying brickwork shows the small light shafts that were used instead of windows for the prisoners. Inside, steam tunnels prevent the basement from being renovated, essentially keeping it sealed like a tomb of treasures. This is where Stritch found rusted padlocks and an ancient-looking metal bowl that he stashes in his office.

Nearby is "C-block," built in 1870 for female prisoners. They were at the penitentiary until 1923, Stritch said. Several stories up, in the exterior of the wall facing the prison yard, there's an indentation where the wooden walkway for hangings used to be. Those ceased in 1955 when the gas chamber went in - literally built into the prison hospital.

The heavy metal chamber cannot be removed without tearing apart the building, Stritch said, so now it is somewhat concealed by a curtain. Also inside the hospital is the lethal injection room, the method of execution used since 1994.

Stritch's chattiness makes him personally suited as the prison's tour guide. When he takes around a group of college students from American University, McDaniel College or one of the other schools with which he works, he can fill hours telling prison stories.

His interest in the history of the prison began in 1995, when he helped Wallace Shugg, a University of Maryland professor, research a book called A Monument to Good Intentions.

Stritch said Shugg had called the prison to ask for help in reporting the final chapter - the modern history of the place - and the warden directed him to Stritch because he'd been there for much of the past 30 years.

But Stritch became the author's "eyes and ears inside 'the Castle,'" Shugg wrote in his acknowledgements. He found and passed along old inmate photographs and other memorabilia. And Stritch said he did much of the publicity for the book, at Shugg's request.

Stritch has a keen memory for dates, places and names. It's so good, in fact, that he's more reliable than some written records. One example is his own "official start date." The prison system's records list it as March 21, 1968.

Stritch knows better. Really, he said, it's Aug. 23, 1967.

julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

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