At least two inmates believed to be armed with handguns were holding two unarmed correctional officers hostage early this morning in a tense standoff at the Maryland Penitentiary in Baltimore.
In a swirl of blue-top emergency lights, state police marksmen, tactical officers in riot gear and top prison officials descended on the 180-year-old stone fortress on Forrest Street. Dozens of city police secured the perimeter of the prison.
The incident began between 9:15 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. in the C dormitory complex in the southwest quadrant of the maximum-security prison, where the correctional officers were accosted by at least two inmates believed to be wielding handguns. Prison officials knew the identities of the hostages but refused to reveal them early this morning.
A third correctional officer managed to escape from the 230-bed dormitory after he, too, was assaulted by the inmates. The officer told prison officials that he believed the inmates were armed with two handguns.
"We have no idea where the guns came from," said Sgt. Gregory M. Shipley, a state Division of Correction spokesman, briefing reporters outside the prison. "They didn't take them from the officers."
The third correctional officer, who also was not identified, had gone to the dormitory after hearing of a disturbance and had quickly come upon the hostage situation. He managed to flee with only superficial injuries, authorities said.
"There was a minor assault on one officer who was able to leave. He had minor contusions and his forehead had red marks," Sergeant Shipley said.
A state police hostage-negotiating team was on hand and using a bullhorn to talk with the inmates, Sergeant Shipley said. At 2 a.m., the inmates were writing a list of concerns to be given to officials, including Maryland Secretary of Public Safety Bishop L. Robinson, Commissioner of Correction Richard A. Lanham Sr. and Warden Sewall Smith.
Prison officials refused to detail the dialogue between negotiators and inmates because the inmates had access to radios and television sets.
Most of the estimated 230 inmates in C dormitory were locked down in their cells early today -- as were inmates in other tiers -- and there was no immediate indication that the disturbance involved more than a handful of prisoners.
"The situation is still under control," Sergeant Shipley said.
Beyond identifying the location of the incident as the C dormitory, authorities would not specify the exact location of the standoff. Nor would they identify the inmates believed to be involved.
There was also no indication as to where penitentiary inmates might have acquired handguns -- if, in fact, such weapons were involved -- or whether those handguns were loaded with live ammunition. Although the prison maintains a secured armory, correctional officers are unarmed when posted within the penitentiary.
At the same time, smuggling has been a perennial problem at the East Baltimore prison, regarded as the worst in the state correctional system. After a July 1988 riot in which eight correctional officers and a prison psychologist were seriously injured, state police conducted a shakedown and recovered a loaded handgun from the prison yard. Last year state police also recovered another loaded handgun secreted behind a cinder block in the basement area of the prison.
"If they've got guns, that's no surprise," said Larry Thomas, president of Teamsters Local 103, one of three unions representing correctional officers at the prison. "You can find anything you want in that place."
Sergeant Shipley said he was not sure when the last shakedown at the prison was conducted but believed it could have been as long ago as two or three months.
Even when there are shakedowns, inmates often know about them in advance, said Mr. Thomas, who criticized the security procedures at the prison.
"They're not doing the stuff they're supposed to be doing," he said.
Mr. Thomas questioned whether there were any signs of impending confrontation that prison officials might have ignored. Inmates often hoard food and make other preparations for a long lockdown -- a sure sign that trouble is brewing.
State officials have planned for more than three years to close the penitentiary, which has serious structural deficiencies as well as substandard conditions. The plan has been to eventually shift inmates elsewhere and build a minimum-security pre-release center on that part of the city prison complex.
Nonetheless, continued crowding in the 16,000-bed correctional system has forced the state to delay plans and maintain the ancient penitentiary for maximum-security inmates.
Last night's incident is the most serious since a penitentiary officer was stabbed at least 11 times with a homemade knife by an inmate in December.
That officer, Wendell A. Winchester, 30, of Baltimore, was stabbed by a 32-year-old inmate as he and another correctional officer were doing cell checks on the ground floor of the South Wing, one of the oldest, most decrepit sections of the prison -- an area used to segregate problem inmates from the rest of the prison population. A female officer was injured in another stabbing in June 1990.
In 1988, a riot in the prison yard resulted in the wounding of two inmates who were shotgunned as a Division of Correction tactical team fought to retake the yard and the ground floor of two adjacent buildings.