How uprising at state prison was quelled Tense talks over 23 hours brought crisis to an end.

July 19, 1991|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,Evening Sun Staff Joe Nawrozki contributed to this story.

The uprising at the Maryland Penitentiary began Tuesday night when a correctional officer discovered a bag full of hacksaw blades in a cell.

The crisis ended with the quiet surrender of about 250 inmates who had barricaded themselves and two hostages in the decrepit 19th century prison building known as C Dorm.

In between, during almost 23 hours of on-again, off-again bargaining, inmates complained about a broad spectrum of issues -- from overcrowding to compassionate leave to a prison worker suspected of having AIDS. But prison officials said they made few concessions.

Today, two days after the crisis ended, 104 inmates from C Dorm have been moved to the west wing while the others still were living in tents in the heat of the dusty Pen courtyard as officers search for at least one more handgun hidden in the C building, a prison spokesman said. Officials reported a few scuffles between inmates and guards yesterday.

Investigators found one gun yesterday, a .32-caliber revolver with four bullets, hidden in a wall between cells on C Dorm's second level, said Gregory M. Shipley, the prison spokesman.

Twenty prisoners from the state's boot camp prison in Jessup were returning today to continue cleaning up C Dorm, which inmates trashed during the uprising.

The seizing of the hacksaw blades Tuesday night may have prompted inmates to jump quickly into an already planned escape, Shipley said.

When the guard took the blades to his office, he was surprised by an inmate with a handgun. The inmate wanted the hacksaw blades back.

Over the next several minutes, other inmates set a diversionary fire and, using the guard's radio, broadcast an erroneous report of an officer down elsewhere in the prison.

The escape attempt apparently fizzled when inmates were unable to open a welded door to the roof. Another gun appeared, and possibly a third, as the situation quickly developed into a hostage crisis, according to several sources.

The following is an account pieced together from interviews with officials of the prison and the unions representing correctional officers.

Discussions with the inmates began quickly. Maj. Theodore Purnell, the Pen's security chief, talked with inmates in C Dorm as top officials of the Division of Correction assembled at the Pen. Richard A. Lanham, the state correction commissioner, took charge of the negotiations, with Pen Warden Sewall Smith and Assistant Commissioner Frank Mazzone at his side.

Early on, several inmates quietly made their way out of C Dorm, wanting no part of the uprising. Some sick inmates also left. An inmate stabbed by another prisoner was brought out of the building and taken to the Pen hospital.

While Purnell and Mazzone continued preliminary discussions from outside C Dorm, inmates were busy inside barricading the front door with a huge stack of furniture. Eventually, inmates passed out a list of concerns, typed on white paper and laced with grammatical errors.

The paper had been ripped in half and taped together, which indicated to prison officials that the inmates were divided.

The two hostages, Larry Hughes and Gary Wooten, were locked in cells, sometimes together and sometimes separately. Inmates moved them around the building several times. For a while they were tied up or hooded.

Inmates made Hughes remove his prison uniform and wear jeans and a tank top to make it harder for any assault forces to find him or shoot without fear of hitting him.

Inmates smashed television sets, broke up furniture, destroyed prisoners' records and set fire to mattresses and scrap papers. Some put on homemade cloth masks.

Prison officials quickly put on hold any plans for an armed assault on C Dorm, fearing that the two hostages would be killed. But tactical squads, including scores of State Police and correctional officers, practiced assault maneuvers in the Pen area. Armed personnel with attack dogs deployed conspicuously around the prison, even though there was little fear that problems would spill over the Pen's massive walls.

"We wanted them to see some of this on TV," Mazzone said. "We wanted to make them think."

Through the hot night, inmates and state officials exchanged written proposals. Officials were able to answer some inmate concerns by simply telling them about decisions that had already been made:

*Inmates complained that those serving life terms found it hard to move out of maximum-security status. They didn't know that on July 1 Lanham had issued new classification rules that made it easier for lifers to be reclassified.

*Inmates said they hadn't been offered AIDS tests in the wake of disclosures that two Pen dentists had died of AIDS. Officials promised the tests.

*Prisoners objected to last year's cancellation of compassionate leave for funerals. They didn't know that the leaves had been restored several months ago.

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