Stabbed guard compensated -- $1,000 a wound

DAN RODRICKS

February 23, 1993|By DAN RODRICKS

Wendell Winchester yanked up his T-shirt to reveal a long, gnarled pink scar that screamed across his dark skin, from groin to sternum.

That's how our last meeting ended -- with that cringe-inducing image of a good-looking young man, healthy by all outward appearances, lifting his shirt to show where he had been savagely stabbed.

Seven months later, Winchester still has the scar, of course, and he still feels pain from each of the 11 spots on his body where the knife entered.

We revisit him today because Winchester, a disabled Maryland prison guard, just learned how much in worker's compensation the state, his former employer, thinks each stab wound was worth.

Here's how much: About $1,000.

We'll get to the arithmetic in a moment.

First, we must return to the evening of Dec. 4, 1990.

Winchester, 30 years old at the time, was assigned to the segregation unit of the Maryland Penitentiary. That was in the old and decrepit South Wing, once called "the innermost circle of hell," and home for the most violent men in the state. Wendell Winchester was three years into his job; annual salary, $21,300.

That night, he and another guard were doing "floor taps," the ancient prison ritual -- remember, this was South Wing -- of rapping wooden batons on the floors and walls of cells to check for hollow sounds or other indications of inmates digging out of prison.

"When we did floor-taps," Winchester explained, "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."

Around 8 p.m., Winchester and his partner arrived at the cell of a convicted rapist. They checked his clothing, then ordered him to turn around to be handcuffed.

As his partner began to take the inmate outside the cell, Winchester stepped into it. Winchester felt a knock on his neck. He turned, and the inmate was on him.

He pulled Winchester's protective vest aside and he stabbed him in the back, the neck, the shoulder twice, the right arm, the stomach.

"He kept stabbing me," Winchester said. "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."

The inmate stabbed Winchester 11 times in all, using a homemade knife about a foot long.

Winchester was in the Shock Trauma unit, on a respirator, for a month. He sustained damage to nerves, pancreas, lungs and abdomen.

"I should have died," he says.

Winchester hasn't worked since the attack. He says he still suffers terrible pains and muscle spasms on the right side of his body, and I didn't even ask him about nightmares.

Last year, the medical director of the state Department of Personnel concluded that Winchester "is unable to return to work in the environment of any correctional facility, presently or in the future."

Winchester applied for worker's compensation. He received some, but not without hassles. He went without compensation for several weeks at a time, running short of food and rent money, before receiving lump-sum payments from the state.

"You have to fight these people all the time to keep getting the checks," he said. "If you don't knock down walls, you don't get any help."

There never was any question that Winchester deserved some compensation.

But how much? Results are in, folks.

For his near-death experience, which the state calls "an accidental injury," Wendell Winchester will get $25,200, paid over 175 weeks. Subtract from that the $6,500 the state has already paid him, subtract $4,300 in lawyer's fees, subtract $135 for a doctor's examination, subtract the $2,600 Winchester had to borrow from a finance company during his recovery, and we arrive at the sum of $11,665.

Knock off the interest Winchester paid on the loan, and we're down to about $11,000. And, if you follow the arithmetic, you arrive at about $1,000 per stab wound.

I can't make up my mind. Is that cheap? Is it unfair? Is it a lousy deal?

It's all of the above.

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