Writing Of Life 'Behind The Walls'

October 11, 1994|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Sun Staff Writer

Maj. Louis R. Stewart has been bitten, stabbed, thrown down stairs and threatened by inmates who wanted to hang him or take him hostage during his 24 years as a correctional officer in Maryland's prison system.

"I thought if I write these [incidents] down and tell people, they'd never believe me," said Mr. Stewart, 60, a Long Reach village resident. "When you walk into a prison and talk to a criminal, you're entering a different realm of mankind."

Mr. Stewart, a member of the American Black Writers Association, is attempting to turn his personal experiences into a book.

His manuscript, titled "Behind The Wall," is a nonfiction account detailing prison mayhem and his observations and feelings as he worked his way up the ranks.

So far, Mr. Stewart has been unable to interest publishers. But at least one free-lance writer who read "Behind The Wall" has given Mr. Stewart hope. With some polishing, said Herb Borkland, Mr. Stewart's memoirs could be compelling enough to be published or adapted into a screenplay.

"The thing that struck me was he didn't take a Rambo-like approach to being a correctional officer," said Mr. Borkland of Montgomery County, a free-lance magazine writer and the screenwriter for a Home Box Office martial arts movie. "The thing you realize is there's as much pain in the lives of correctional officers as prisoners.

"I got a sense that he's a decent man trying to hang on in a horrific job."

Mr. Stewart supervises 97 correctional officers on the 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. shift at the 1,100-inmate Maryland Correctional Institution-Jessup (MCI-J).

He was an unlikely candidate for prison work. A licensed nurse and a U.S. Army veteran, he had managed an Anne Arundel County auto parts store for eight years before it was purchased by a larger company in 1970.

Seeking more security and health benefits for his family, Mr. Stewart followed the advice of a friend who worked in the prison system and applied to the state corrections agency. He said he learned almost everything on the job because the state's training program at the time was minimal.

Mr. Stewart started at the Maryland House of Corrections in Jessup, walking the tiers, locking inmates in cells, inspecting for fires and generally keeping order.

"When you start out, it's really rough," said Mr. Stewart, who is a trained hostage negotiator. "When you walk in, the inmates try you. They want to see how much nerve you have."

Especially unsettling, he said, was walking into the cafeteria where inmates would stop eating and try to engage officers in a "stare-down."

"I thought then that this isn't the place to be, I'm going to get out," Mr. Stewart said. "But I was determined not to walk away."

He eventually moved into the prison's hospital to use his nursing skills and began ascending the ranks. In 1981, he was promoted to lieutenant and transferred to the new MCI-J, which had a more open atmosphere than the fortress-like House of Corrections, he said. He was promoted to major in 1987.

One incident early in his corrections career convinced Mr. Stewart that his story would be worth telling the public someday.

He had helped an inmate who had been severely lacerated and flown to a hospital. Shortly thereafter, the assailant was taken into custody. The assailant's blood pressure and pulse rate were normal, Mr. Stewart recalled.

"He was so calm, you'd think he just woke up or was reading a book," Mr. Stewart said. "This man didn't have any problem doing this at all. If it was going to be like this, I thought there would be others, and there were, quite a few."

Since 1972, Mr. Stewart has taken note of frightening incidents, the often-bizarre ways of prison life, the difficulties correctional officers experience dealing with inmates' pent-up anger and frustration.

Mr. Stewart's supervisors say he's a dedicated officer who goes beyond the job's requirements and who works well with people, both inmates and his staff.

"He's been able to adapt to any situation and any change in administration or policy," said Gary Hornbaker, assistant warden MCI-J.

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