The architect Klaus Philipsen had lived in Baltimore several years before he drove along East Eager Street and saw it for the first time.
Before him loomed huge walls of granite. Ironwork shielded the arched windows. A tower of stone rose five stories. The sight resembled the medieval ruins of his home in South Germany. Philipsen craned his neck. “Baltimore has a castle!”
Only, the curls of razor wire signaled this was no place of fairy tales. Here was the Maryland Penitentiary, the state’s oldest prison, a site both grand and troubling. They don’t build prisons with dungeons anymore.
The Pen has stood over East Baltimore for more than a century. Now, it’s coming down.
Wrecking crews are in the midst of a two-year, $27 million effort to demolish the notorious prison and the adjacent city jail, largely clearing the 17-acre corrections compound at the foot of Interstate 83. The historic penitentiary, reconstructed in 1899, traces to 1811.
Once the city held this place in high regard. Builders touted the grandeur of the prison erected as a humane alternative to chain gangs. But over the decades, this source of civic pride became a symbol of oppression. Of cells overcrowded with men, of violence and filth.
Architects still remark on the load-bearing arches of cut stone, craftsmanship rare today. But from the street, one can’t see the yard where guards held the hangings. It’s a site of contradiction: anguish and beauty.
Onlookers have come to take photos or peer through the fence. Correctional officers have returned to pocket a piece of brick or scrap of steel. The city watches the stone walls come down with regret and satisfaction. Like reopening an old wound, the work stirs memories.
In style, it’s Romanesque Revival: arched windows, pitched roof, eight-sided cupola. Its block walls, built of famous blue-gray granite from Port Deposit, rise up some 80 feet over the streets of Baltimore. Depending who you ask, it resembles a cathedral or cartoonish evil castle. When crews knocked down the wall, people expressed regret and glee online.
“Sic semper tyrannis!” one man proclaimed, meaning death to tyrants. A woman remarked wistfully, “That could have been a gorgeous hotel!”
Preservationists persuaded Gov. Larry Hogan to save some structures: the stone tower known as the prison administration building and the Gothic warden’s house at the jail. The rest of the jail has been demolished during the past year.
The penitentiary is coming down now, though a portion of the historic west wing will be saved. Inside it, steel cells were stacked like cages. A man had to escape his cell and then the granite walls — a prison within a prison.
Early model of prison reform
Debate has swirled around the demolition. Should state officials preserve this early example of American prison reform? It was built to promote rehabilitation, unlike the colonial prisons that centered on corporal punishment.
Or should the state erase an instrument of racism and pain? After all, these grounds held runaway slaves.
“You can’t punish the structure for what people did with it,” said Philipsen, the German architect.
He imagined the 19th century walls as a museum or memorial, something to honor those who suffered. Others saw potential for an event space. Ottawa, Ontario, transformed its 150-year-old jail into a $50-a-night hostel, where guests may “sleep in a real solitary confinement cell.”
Still, architecture alone isn’t reason to preserve a house of misery, says Jerryn McCray, who runs his architecture firm a few blocks from the prison.
“Buildings are not sacred themselves. It’s the things that occur inside of buildings that make them sacred," McCray says.
There’s also the troubling symbolism to consider. What might it say about a city that preserves a bloody prison as a downtown landmark?
In his book “A Monument to Good Intentions,” retired UMBC English professor Wallace Shugg writes of the cruel guards, corruption and violent inmates who established the reputation of the “old Pen.” During reforms of the late 19th century, crews rebuilt the prison with more lighting, ventilation and workshops to ply a trade. They believed solitary confinement would bring reflection.
The peace hardly lasted.
By the 1930s, prisoners were rioting. Overcrowding caused tensions to escalate. In the 1950s, City Council President Arthur Price called it a “dynamite box.”
Meanwhile, “Tunnel Joe” Holmes became a folk hero as the only man to dig his way out. As Shugg writes, the wily convict dug for two years to be recaptured in two weeks.
The violence persisted. From 1978 to 1987, at least eight inmates were killed and a dozen more committed suicide. In October 1984, Officer Herman Toulson Jr. was stabbed to death by a 25-year-old prisoner with a homemade knife. Toulson became Maryland’s first correctional officer killed on duty. Seven guards were charged with beating prisoners in retaliation.
The prison held too many inmates, and the conditions were too decrepit. For years prisoners had deliberately flooded their toilets. The water rusted steel supports for their cells. Knowing this, the prisoners would jump up and down in unison, Shugg writes. The very floor threatened to collapse.
Over the wall, conditions weren’t any better in city jail.
It opened December 1859 with a banquet for Baltimore’s leaders. Their speeches praised its appearance, comfort, stability — a modern American jail second to none. Like the prison next door, overcrowding soon caused chaos.
By the 1880s, more than 8,000 people a year passed through. By the 1930s, the warden wanted to build cells in the 400-person chapel. One alarmed city leader called the jail “a sanitary menace." In the 1940s, federal inspectors urged it be shut down. In the 1960s, the warden warned that inmates attempted suicide almost daily.
A surprise inspection in June 1972 found cells strewn with trash and excrement caked on toilet bowls. Inmates had devised a method of yanking hard on the locking rods to spring open their cell doors. Inspectors found evidence that men were crawling through the ventilator shafts. They noted 80 escapes in six years.
The inmates filed a class-action lawsuit over their conditions.
The “Godfather of Soul” himself spent two nights at city jail in July 1978. James Brown was charged with contempt of court after skipping a hearing over money he owed for buying a Baltimore radio station. Of his stay, he told The Afro-American, “the food was bad.”
That same year, Beat poet Allen Ginsberg gave an Easter Sunday reading. The audience of inmates, The Sun reported, appeared bored.
The jail was riddled with dangerous blind spots where an inmate could surprise an officer. Work here wasn’t for the fainthearted.
By the late 1980s, the jail held nearly 3,000 inmates — despite a court order limiting the population to about 2,600. Cells were so small the man on the bottom bunk slept with his head beside the toilet.
On summer days, the heat was unbearable and inmates tried to knock out their windows. Rats scurried around. Cells stank of sweat and urine.
Most of the jail’s inmates were locked up only because they couldn’t make bail.
When the state took over in 1991, officials renamed the jail the Baltimore City Detention Center, to start anew.
Officials had already closed the beleaguered penitentiary. The grounds became a transition center for inmates easing back into society.
Further scandal gripped the jail in spring of 2013. Federal prosecutors uncovered an extensive smuggling ring. The mastermind was a boss in the Black Guerrilla Family street gang, an inmate known as “Bulldog.” He had wrested control of the facility, boasting in one recorded phone call: “This is my jail.”
The boss was sleeping with female correctional officers. He admitted to impregnating four of them. One of the women had his name tattooed on her neck. National embarrassment followed. Hogan closed the jail two years later and ordered it demolished.
“For too long," he said, “this facility had the distinction of being one of the worst prisons in America.”
'Make your choice’
Saint Frances Academy had long grown accustomed to its place in the shadow of the penitentiary. The small Catholic high school sits across East Eager Street.
“It never, ever is lost on me, when I look at both buildings, how one is such a symbol of hope and the other such a symbol of despair,” says Deacon B. Curtis Turner, the Saint Frances president. "And they’re less than 100 yards away from each other.”
Turner became the principal in 2008 and school president in 2020. He remembers early advice from a correctional officer. "He said to me, the better you do your job, the less I’ll have to do mine.”
Teachers feared their dropouts might end up imprisoned across the street. One boy in particular troubled English teacher Derrick Truesdale. He noticed the boy on drug corners. The student seemed uninterested in class. When he fought in the hallway and Truesdale caught him, the boy shot back.
“He said, I don’t need this school. I can be out there making money,” Truesdale remembered. “I said, OK. Let’s go."
Truesdale walked the boy outside. On their left, Saint Frances. On their right, the penitentiary.
“Make your choice," he told the boy.
Two years later, Truesdale watched him walk across the graduation stage.
Over the years, Saint Frances hired ex-offenders, such as Andre Vince, as custodians. He was held at city jail while awaiting trial and sentencing for attempted murder. Vince served almost 13 years at the state prison in Hagerstown.
While he was in jail, a young man sought revenge outside Vince’s cell. The man stabbed out another inmate’s eye. Blood everywhere. He was dragging his victim to the back of the tier when officers rushed up. It was horrific to witness, but formative for the 19-year-old Vince. He swore he wouldn’t die behind bars.
Today, he has mixed feelings to see the demolition. It’s the horrors that set his life on course, Vince says — or as he puts it, diamonds form in the deepest, darkest places.
State officials want to turn these troubled grounds into a mental health and addiction-treatment center for inmates. The General Assembly has authorized spending $8 million to design the treatment center contingent on the sale of bonds.
By now, the wrecking crews have been working at the site for a year. The empty space could fit a football field.
The crews saved the famous exit sign from city jail. The metal banner hung to encourage the men leaving lockup. Now, it’s a reminder of the failures of a violent and corrupt compound.
The sign says, “Never Again.”
Baltimore Sun librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.