Pen inmates free officers, end takeover Prisoners surrender after they get pledge of no retaliation

July 18, 1991|By M. Dion Thompson David Simon, Ann Lolordo, Michael Ollove and Sandy Banisky of The Sun's metropolitan staff contributed to this article.

A tense, daylong standoff between armed inmates and correction officers ended peacefully yesterday as inmates released the second of two officers they had held hostage at the Maryland Penitentiary.

Officer Larry Hughes, 31, a three-year employee of the Division of Correction, was released unharmed at 8 p.m. Officer Gary Wooten, 29, a one-year employee of the state prison system, had been released, also unharmed, at 11:29 a.m.

Both officers had been taken hostage around 9:30 p.m. Tuesday after two or three inmates tried to escape from the prison's C Dormitory, an L-shaped structure of steel, stone and concrete.

A flurry of activity preceded Officer Hughes' release. Around 6:30 p.m., several state police cruisers raced up Madison Street and turned in at the prison's Forrest Street entrance. Another 25 troopers, armed with shotguns, followed on foot, while a state police helicopter hovered overhead.

According to Commissioner of Corrections Richard A. Lanham Sr., Officer Hughes' release was set in motion when prison officials told the inmates state police and corrections officers would not storm the dormitory and that there would be no reprisals. The inmates began to surrender in groups of five, leaving C Dormitory for the No. 3 exercise yard. At 8 p.m. when Officer Hughes was released, the remainder of the 238 prisoners surrendered to 50 waiting troopers.

The inmates were fed a bag lunch and milk after their surrender.

Prison officials said they would conduct an intensive search of C Dormitory in hopes of finding two guns that were somehow secreted within the prison and used in the attempted escape.

According to prison officials and union representatives, the escape attempt began around 9:30 p.m. Tuesday when one of four correctional officers on duty noticed contraband in C Dormitory that he suspected would be used in an escape. An inmate, armed with a revolver, saw the officer and told him to get out. Another officer walked in, and a scuffle ensued.

The inmates, two of them armed with revolvers, overpowered two of the officers, taking their radios and keys and creating a diversion by using a radios to broadcast that an officer was in trouble in B Dormitory.

Lt. William Pitts, Sgt. Mark Canfield and Officer Cornell Barnes either fought their way out of the dormitory or were released by the inmates. The two other officers were left behind.

Ricardo R. Silva, director of field services for the Maryland Correctional Union, said correctional officers had been warned that inmates might try to escape from the prison.

During roll call for the 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. shift Tuesday, prison officials told correction officers "to be wary of a possible diversion, a fight that would be used as a diversion for a possible escape," said Mr. Silva, whose union represents about 150 of the 260 officers at the penitentiary.

Herbert Berry Jr., a former correction officer now working with the Maryland Correctional Union, said the inmates had planned to escape through the ceiling of C Dormitory but could not because the hatch had been welded shut. Union officials said the inmates in the escape attempt were new to the prison and did not know the doors had been welded.

Sergeant Gregory M. Shipley, a spokesman for the Division of Correction, said prison officials had been given a tip that a gun might be in the prison and were planning to lock prisoners in their cells and conduct a cell-by-cell search when the incident occurred. He also said the inmates' guns did not belong to the Division of Correction. The prison maintains a secured armory, but correctional officers are unarmed when posted within the penitentiary.

After the takeover, prison officials laid siege to the dormitory, which is split between five levels of cells and three levels of dormitory-style housing. Three of the cell levels have two men in each 6-by-9-foot cell.

"It's because of overcrowding," Sergeant Shipley said. "It's certainly not an ideal situation to have maximum-security inmates in a dormitory setting, but it's something we have to do."

Since 1985, the state has been under a federal court order to limit the population at the Maryland Penitentiary. The current population cap is 1,103 inmates. Yesterday, Sergeant Shipley said 1,005 inmates were housed at the 180-year-old maximum-security prison, designed for 700 to 800 inmates.

Though much of yesterday passed as a tense standoff between prison negotiators and the inmates, there was constant action around the prison. Teams of correction officers, wearing bulletproof vests, riot helmets and armed with shot guns and batons, gathered at the Forrest Street entrance off Madison Street. From time to time they entered or left the prison compound, gas masks swinging from their thick belts.

Meanwhile, other officers, shotguns on their hips, patrolled the roof of the prison hospital next to C Dormitory. State police officers, also carrying shotguns, stood guard along Madison Street.

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