Guard survives seconds of horror in 'circle of hell'

DAN RODRICKS

July 03, 1992|By DAN RODRICKS

On that winter evening, Wendell Winchester was where the state of Maryland paid him $21,300 a year to be -- at the epicenter of "the innermost circle of hell." He was about to step inside a cell in the segregation unit of the squalid South Wing of the Maryland Penitentiary, placing him inches away from a muscular inmate who had been in prison for 14 years, who had been in fights and who had threatened Winchester's life.

All things considered, it's unlikely any prison guard could have been closer to danger at that particular moment -- around 8 o'clock, Dec. 4, 1990.

So maybe the protective vest was not enough. Maybe more precautions should have been taken. Maybe there should have been two other correctional officers with Winchester when he checked Larry Thomas' cell. "There were supposed to be three of us," Winchester says. "There were only two of us."

Maybe the inmate should have been handcuffed and removed from the cell before Winchester entered. "That's procedure for floor-taps," he says.

"Floor-taps?" I ask.

"That's where you tap the floors and walls with wooden batons to check for hollow sounds, in case inmates are trying to dig out of the prison."

Prisoners digging a tunnel is an archaic concept in the age of Supermax. But remember: This happened on the first floor of South Wing, 91 years old at the time and certainly the state's most notorious and decrepit cellblock. In 1984, the Maryland attorney general branded it "the innermost circle of hell." It should have been closed years ago, but the last inmate left only in late 1991 -- too late for Wendell Winchester.

"When we did floor-taps," he says, "there was supposed to be two correctional officers on an inmate while the other officer taps the cell. When you do floor-taps, you go in the cell while the inmate is outside in handcuffs. You face the rear of the cell and you floor-tap from the back to the front, the walls and the floor. It only takes a minute."

Winchester, 30 years old at the time, was assigned to work the segregation unit, home for the most violent men in a wing of violent men. He was three years into his job, one of hundreds of correctional officers who serve the public well out of public view by performing, for relatively meager pay, one of the most dangerous jobs in the state.

That night, Winchester had as a partner a younger officer with less experience. They arrived at Thomas' cell and, after an initial check of the inmate's clothing, ordered him to turn around to be handcuffed.

At this point in the telling, you should know that Wendell Winchester and Larry Thomas had, as they say, "some history." A few months earlier, Thomas had been in a confrontation with hTC another guard in the South Wing. It was Wendell Winchester who subdued Thomas and handcuffed him. A month or so later, Thomas threatened to kill Winchester. Winchester says he wrote a report on the threat.

Thomas, the record shows, had been incarcerated since 1976 for the rape of a woman in Howard County. He was 18 when he went to prison. A trim, muscular man, Thomas had been sufficiently violent in the general prison population that officials moved him to the segregation unit of South Wing. That's where he met Wendell Winchester again.

Preparing for the floor-tap, the other guard began to take Thomas outside his cell as Winchester stepped in. "They were just a foot outside the cell door, and I walked in," he says. "[Thomas] was not handcuffed because, when I was doing my floor-taps, I felt this knock on my neck. At first, I thought [the other guard] was joking. Then I realized it was Thomas because he grabbed my vest and pulled it aside and he stabbed me. . . . He stabbed me in my back, my neck, in my shoulder twice, in my right arm, in my stomach three times."

Winchester fell to the floor. He told his partner to call for help.

Before other guards could arrive, Thomas stabbed Winchester 11 times with a homemade knife that, according to Assistant State's Attorney Gary Schenker, appeared to have been made from a flat piece of steel, about 12 inches long.

"He kept stabbing me," Winchester says. "It was just me and him in the cell. I looked right in his eyes and said, 'Are you gonna kill me?' And he said, 'Yes.' So I played dead. I closed my eyes and played dead to get him to stop stabbing me."

Shock Trauma, 30 days. Respirator, 30 days. Damage to nerves, pancreas, lungs and abdomen. "I should have died," he says.

Eventually, Winchester recovered. He was able to testify against Thomas at a trial this year. Found guilty of attempted murder, Thomas went back to prison with another life sentence.

But the story doesn't end there.

Wendell Winchester has not worked since the attack. A recent letter from Dr. Peter Oroszlan, medical director for the state Department of Personnel, said, "Mr. Winchester is unable to return to work in the environment of any correctional facility, presently or in the future."

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