'Circle of hell,' Pen's South Wing, holds tormented souls no longer

December 18, 1991|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,SUN GRAPHICS

Days before the end of the last century, hundreds of prisoners filed into the South Wing of Baltimore's new Maryland Penitentiary, heralded as "an imperishable monument to the humanitarianism of the state."

At the time, the imposing granite fortress was state-of-the-art, a far cry from the squalor in which inmates had been living. So dramatic was the change that The Sun reported prisoners were "delighted with the conveniences" as they were locked into their dormitory cells for the first time. It was Dec. 10, 1899.

But over the next 85 years, the South Wing deteriorated into a filthy, roach- and rat-infested home for the state's worst inmates -- where some days the stench of human waste and body odor was nearly overpowering and the climate of violence palpable.

After a 1984 investigation into prison conditions that was prompted by the slaying of a correctional officer, the South Wing won a new label. The Maryland attorney general branded it "the innermost circle of hell."

And last week, 92 years to the day since its opening as part of the prison that was to live forever, the last inmate was ushered unceremoniously out of the Forrest Street dormitory building. Its future -- whether to tear down the South Wing or refurbish it -- is still uncertain.

By the time of the attorney general's investigation, the South Wing had become overcrowded and understaffed and clearly showed its years of mismanagement and neglect. Drug and weapons trafficking, homosexual rape, beatings and stabbings

were commonplace.

Almost symbolic of the brutality it had seen, the South Wing won a dubious distinction as the site of the only murder of a Maryland correctional officer to die in the line of duty.

After the investigation, conditions improved, if only slightly. New security measures were ordered, as well as a cleanup and a thinning of the inmate ranks.

But four years later, the South Wing's cell house -- a huge, free-standing cage within the thick dormitory walls -- began to fall apart, bending and twisting under its own weight, as if its tradition of evil were pulling it to the ground. Last December, after an inmate crashed through a crumbling floor to the level below, the Division of Correction stepped up its efforts to abandon the five-story dormitory.

In an almost surrealistic tour of the now-empty building, a few correction officials, reporters and photographers milled about yesterday, peering into the 9-by-5-foot cells that at one point had each housed two inmates.

"I'm glad this is over," said Warden Sewall B. Smith Jr., walking out of a cell, trying to push a stuck door to one side. He shook his head and smiled as a pigeon fluttered overhead.

L "Takes you back, doesn't it?" a sergeant asked Warden Smith.

"Yeah, it sure does, from day one. I spent my first six years here," said the warden, a 20-year veteran of prison security.

Correction Commissioner Richard A. Lanham Sr., who initiated plans to remove inmates from the crumbling building a year ago, walked from cell to cell, reading graffiti aloud to no one in particular.

"Kill guards at random. Method. One, learn to kill quietly. Two, have patience. Three, strike the throat with large knife. Four, control your victim. Don't let go. Five, become the panther: Stalk. Observe. Strike," Mr. Lanham read.

"Nice people, huh?" he added.

Other walls were decorated with pictures of women and men from magazines, one still smeared with feces. "Keep hope alive," read one message. "Silence is golden," read another. "Oppression is worst than death."

Said Mr. Lanham, "It's always housed Maryland's worst. I think that speaks for itself. It's a very ominous-looking place."

Water still ran from one of the shower heads. A nearby pump gave off a vomit-like odor. Officials pointed out a Plexiglas shield on wheels that patrolling officers would roll past cells to keep from being hit by urine and feces flung at them by inmates.

Many of the inmates housed there -- those in administrative or disciplinary segregation, or in protective custody -- have been transferred to the nearby Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center, the so-called Supermax.

Others have been shipped to the new 144-bed segregation unit at the House of Correction's maximum-security annex in Jessup.

The last 13 inmates to live in the penitentiary's South Wing were removed Dec. 10. Nine went to the House of Correction and four went to another segregation unit at the penitentiary.

"They were glad to get out . . . and they went quietly," said Theodore Purnell, chief of security at the penitentiary.

"Sure, they were glad. It's a different environment," said Sgt. David K. Jackson. "Some of these inmates have been in segregation seven, eight years, and even to get out of segregation in one place and go to segregation in another place is a change of pace."

The future of the South Wing is up in the air, since plans were

put on hold two years ago by the Maryland General Assembly.

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