The most polite guys in the State House these days wear black combat boots and light blue uniforms and go to bed behind prison bars.
As members of 1st Alpha Company -- part of the state prison system's experimental boot camp program for young inmates -- the 11 men are assigned to sweep the halls, polish the brass door plates and generally keep things tidy inside the State House.
Although visitors to the State House have been accustomed for years to seeing prisoners perform custodial duties, the appearance this week of the boot camp inmates caught many people by surprise -- first by their appearance and then by their courtesy.
Under a strict regimen of discipline, the inmates work quietly and seldom talk except to say hello and to answer questions. In most cases, their replies begin and end with "sir" or "ma'am."
Reaction to the inmates' conduct has been positive.
"We're super impressed," said Judy Housley, a guide and travel counselor in the State House tour office. "I haven't been 'ma'med' that much since I was a school teacher."
The inmates are participants in the Herman L. Toulson Correctional Boot Camp in Jessup, a new program now entering its fifth month. All the inmates are under 25 and are serving prison sentences for first-time convictions.
When they are not on cleanup duty on state roads or in the State House, they attend daily sessions on communicating, problem-solving and self-control. They wear brightly colored uniforms with gold trouser stripes and gold baseball caps. They march from one work site to another, almost always under the scrutiny of a pair of uniformed security guards called drill instructors.
Most are expected to leave the program and the prison system following a graduation ceremony in January.
Cpl. Stephanie A. Randall, an instructor, said the 11 inmates selected for the State House detail are among the best of the 240 inmates in the all-male boot camp program.
Although State House officials would not confirm it, sources said the boot camp inmates replaced another group of inmates from a state prison on the Eastern Shore. Those inmates were kicked out of the State House last week when the correctional officer guarding them was discovered to have pocketed a sensitive report relating to Gov. William Donald Schaefer's plans to lay off state employees to help balance the state budget.
Sources said the guard found the report on a table following a meeting of key Schaefer administrators.
Randall said she was unaware of the specific reason the boot camp inmates were assigned to the State House. She said, however, she was given at least one order regarding the new duty: "You don't pick up anything around here that doesn't belong to you."
Boot camp inmate John P. Garner, a 24-year-old who lived in Baltimore before he was given a two-year prison sentence for violating probation of a car theft sentence, said he prefers spending his days in the halls of government to picking up highway trash.
"It's fine. I'd rather be here because I'm learning more," said Garner, who has been given a special assignment to work in the dark room with the State House photographers.
In addition to their boot camp training, the formal atmosphere of government buildings has its effect on the inmates' behavior, said Garner.
"I guess we have to be a lot more tighter because of the setting," he said.