State police riot squads converged on the Maryland Penitentiary yesterday after more than 200 prisoners held in the recreation yard since a hostage standoff Wednesday began tearing down tents where they have slept.
The troopers were "called as a precautionary measure," said Sgt. Gregory M. Shipley, spokesman for the Division of Correction. The prisoners were "singing and dancing" an hour after the police moved in, he said.
According to Sergeant Shipley, the confrontation began about noon when the prisoners began piling up their mattresses near two prison gates. Shortly after that, they flattened the six tents borrowed from the Maryland National Guard for them to sleep in by loosening the ropes and pulling down the supporting poles, he said.
The prisoners want to return to C Dormitory, where inmates held two correctional officers hostage last week, but prison officials say inmates will not be allowed back inside until they find the second of two handguns used in the incident and a set of keys that belonged to a guard.
"The commissioner has made it very clear to them, we need the gun, and we need one set of keys that are missing," Sergeant Shipley said. "The inmates have been told that if they help us get those two things, they can go back in."
The Pen remained in lockdown yesterday. Visitors were not allowed, and inmates could leave their cells only for meals.
Yet small groups of relatives arrived throughout the day, thinking they would be allowed inside. They were turned away by an employee who said the inmates would call them when they could return.
"Bye, hon," an older woman called as she waved to a man barely visible behind the iron grate over a prison window. "Love you."
Sergeant Shipley said visitors have been arriving all week, apparently unaware of the lockdown.
As the afternoon wore on, state troopers continued to arrive and go inside the prison while Baltimore police ringed the outside fence shooing away the curious.
Sergeant Shipley said prison officials called in two Special Tactical Assistance Teams and a Tactical Unit to assist correctional officers.
The methodical search for the gun and keys continued and could go on for some time unless one of the inmates tells investigators where to find them, Sergeant Shipley added.
"It's not like walking into an empty building and looking around," Sergeant Shipley explained. "There were 260 inmates in C Dorm, and they had personal property, lockers and drawers, and it all has to be gone through very carefully. And then there are the other places to look."
The prisoners remained in the yard late yesterday, milling about under the eyes of troopers patrolling the west wall of the penitentiary and correctional officers inside.
Unless they put the tents back up themselves, they will have no shelter, Sergeant Shipley said. "There are no plans for correctional officers to go back in there," he added. "They slept under the stars the other night, and they can do it again tonight."