One day last summer at the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup, a prisoner named Dennis Wise took a seat at the back of the tiny cubicle where I hold forth each week as a volunteer writing instructor. It's a loosely structured class and it isn't unusual that prisoners wander in for a session or two and then drift away. While always a possibility that such drifting is a commentary on the quality of the instruction, it is also true that writing is a painful business. The core of regulars who turn out every week come not because they want to, or because someone else wants them to, but because, in the true writer's motivation, they simply have to. Buried inside is something terrible, something wonderful, something that absolutely must come out. All their lives they have tried either to unlock long-imprisoned feelings or to escape them; that they have failed is as evident as their bleak existence in this ancient, decaying prison, far removed from the commerce of the normal world.
Dennis Wise seemed to understand that. He had recently been transferred to the House of Correction, a medium-security prison, after serving a dozen years downtown at the maximum-security Maryland Penitentiary. He was doing life for murder and though that meant little to me at the time -- it's not exactly an uncommon credential in a prison -- I was soon to appreciate that nearly every other prisoner and correctional officer at Jessup -- in fact all through the Division of Correction -- already knew either his story or his legend.
In the meantime he was simply the very somber-faced, black man in his early 40s who sat in the back of the class and who gradually became one of the regulars. His questions were pointed but polite and always phrased around a totally disarming smile. It is perhaps his most compelling feature, for it lights up a face otherwise pinched into a permanent frown by a thin horseshoe of a mustache. He'd explained that look to me. "In institutions, you're either a beast or the prey," he said. "You see, early on, examples of what happens if you are mild-mannered. And once you choose which to be, there's no turning back. I made sure I had a tough persona."
Tough, but not especially big -- though Dennis is shrewd enough to stand perfectly straight, taking full advantage of his 6 feet. He supplements that with a capacity for staring straight into your eyes, the kind of penetrating look honed for years on countless blank walls.
Over the course of several weeks Dennis handed in examples of writing at odds with the dark, brooding image that had tinted my first impression. Each piece brimmed with bright, personal insight and mature, cohesive thought. Especially impressive was lengthy piece he wrote about his experiences last summer when he voluntarily acted as go-between during a riot at the Maryland Penitentiary. Whereas much prison writing in its most unrefined stages almost chokes on bitterness and anger, his story seemed even-handed and quietly persuasive. I would eventually convince my editor that it was a story that The Sun should publish.
For Dennis Wise was a clear writer, and clarity, I had told these men over and over, was the writer's most important tool. There was one other thing about him that peaked my interest, something that made me so curious I finally went into The Sun's library and asked for the clipping file on Dennis Wise. In it I found a six-paragraph story from April of 1969, a brief description of a robbery attempt at a place called Sid's Bar on Liberty Heights Avenue. A man had snatched a cash box from behind a bar. An off-duty policeman pulled a gun and ordered the man to stop. The man lunged for the cop and the cop fired. His bullet went into the man's shoulder, it came out just above his collarbone then slammed into his throat, penetrating his jaw and then his tongue. Doctors later found the slug lying in his mouth.
And I could see it then: At the base of Dennis Wise's neck, just above the little well formed by the collarbone, a pinkish, scarred-over trough, impossible to ignore and exactly the kind of puncture a .38-caliber bullet makes when it burrows into human flesh.
I stopped reading. This was only the first story in a very thick file. And the Dennis Wise described in those few grafs was only 18 years old.
"OH MY GOD, WAS HE DAN- gerous," says Bernard Smith with an intake of breath. Formerly an assistant warden at the Maryland Penitentiary, he is now warden of the Baltimore City Detention Center. "I've known Dennis Wise since 20 years ago," he says. "He sure was a dangerous man."
Yet almost in the same breath he adds a postscript. "It's amazing what he has done -- a complete turnaround. When I left the penitentiary to come here I said to him, 'I want to shake your hand.' I've seen a lot of guys in my 32 years, lots of connivers and cons. He's gone too far for it to be a game."