Prison siege brings media into spotlight

July 18, 1991|By Tom Keyser and Thomas W. Waldron | Tom Keyser and Thomas W. Waldron,Evening Sun Staff

This was the plan: The prisoners of C Dormitory at th Maryland Penitentiary would release their last hostage, 31-year-old Larry Hughes, a prison guard, if they could express their grievances to the media.

So yesterday afternoon, under a searing sun outside the simmering prison, Gregory M. Shipley, a State Police sergeant ,, and spokesman for the state prison system, summoned the 30 reporters, photographers and cameramen who stood outside the old complex on Madison Street.

Two reporters and one photographer were from The Evening Sun.

Shipley, an earnest, clean-cut man in a sharp blue suit, was clearly nervous at the prospect of parading 30 members of the press into the tense, volatile prison.

"We're hoping this is what will bring that final hostage out," Shipley said. "This is very unusual. We want it to work."

Before a guard raised the large metal door under which grim-faced police officers in riot gear had just passed, Shipley turned to the reporters and said: "Folks, one more thing. The inmates are still armed. We do not have their weapons yet."

The prisoners reportedly had at least two guns.

If anything goes wrong inside, Shipley said, "we will do our best to get you out of this as quickly as we can."

Surrounded by armed police and correctional officers, the media contingent trooped past a phalanx of another 75 heavily armed assault officers. Inside the massive stone wall, the group waited briefly next to a foul-smelling garbage bin that leaked a dark red liquid that presumably was not blood.

"The inmates are watching, so let's be calm and cool," Shipley said.

He led the reporters, sober and obedient, into a large, dusty exercise yard toward the ominous C Dormitory, where the prisoners held their last hostage.

No one seemed to remember a time when Maryland prisoners had secured firearms while holding hostages. And surely no one remembered a time when reporters had been allowed inside a state prison during an inmate revolt.

Prisoners peered out of C Dorm's nine barred windows facing the yard. Separating the reporters from C Dorm were a 20-foot chain-link fence and a concrete basketball court.

Many prisoners wore ghoulish homemade masks -- one a tight-fitting hood with holes cut out for the eyes, nose and mouth, another resembling an oversized hockey goalie's mask.

A dozen prison officials paced on the basketball court. They yelled up to the inmates, and the inmates yelled down.

"Give us a minute, man," one inmate shouted urgently. "There's a lot at stake here."

For long minutes, nothing happened. Twenty armed officers stood in an arc behind the reporters. Officers with shotguns lined the catwalks and high walls.

Something was wrong. Shipley had said the inmates would release the hostage, and then three inmate leaders would meet with the press in the yard.

Now, the inmates wanted to talk to only one reporter, the silver-haired, unflappable George Baumann, a 31-year veteran of WJZ Channel 13. And they wanted to talk to him inside C Dorm.

Shipley and Richard A. Lanham, commissioner of corrections, crowded in close to Baumann.

"I tried to explain to these people that it is the media's policy that as long as there is a hostage . . .You . .. Will . . . Not . . . Get . . . Involved," Lanham told Baumann sternly.

The message was clear: Don't go in.

Two inmate negotiators were allowed to speak to Baumann. After a brief conversation, Baumann turned to his cameraman and asked: "Did you get that on camera?"

The answer was yes.

On the verge of becoming an news maker, Baumann called his boss on a mobile phone. Then Baumann announced that no, indeed, he would not go inside C Dorm.

As the prisoners contemplated their next move, newspaper reporters waited in the thick heat. Radio reporters filed live reports on portable telephones. TV reporters searched for dramatic angles.

"It's a bizarre kind of standoff," one TV reporter intoned for the camera.

Then the two inmates sidled up again to the fence to make one last pitch to Baumann.

"The whole wing is going to be beat up," said the man wearing a white skull cap. "We still have guys with wounds from the last time."

The pair quickly retreated. That turned out to be the inmates' lone shining moment in the media spotlight.

Finally, after about an hour, Shipley herded the reporters out of the main compound, past the smelly garbage bin and the columns of assault officers and back onto Madison Street.

He said he didn't know what had gone wrong. He said he thought the prison negotiators had had an understanding with the inmate leaders. But, he said, the rest of the prisoners apparently rejected it.

"This was a good faith effort by the commissioner to take the media into the institution," Shipley said. "We tried. It just didn't work."

He looked at the ground. As he wiped his sweating brow with a white handkerchief, he muttered under his breath: "It just didn't work, man."

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