Keepers as bad as the kept 1996 riot at Pen was a blow at a corrupt system

July 14, 1996|By John McLaughlin

WHEN JULY 8, 1966, rolled around, I had already been imprisoned in the Maryland State Penitentiary for 3 1/2 years. I was serving a 15-year sentence for an armed robbery in which I had stolen all of $86.

Raised in absolute madness and violence, I was to the manor born when it came to prison insanity. I cared nothing about

myself, even less about others. I hated my keepers with a glee that came from being taught to hate and endure under any and all forms of abusive authority.

Admittedly, I was truly a young and lost sick puppy who needed to be dealt with. The Maryland Pen reminded me a great deal of life as I had always known it to be: cold, cruel, ugly, painful, torturously demeaning and destructive. I would eventually spend collective 25 of the first 47 years of my crazed self-destructive existence behind prison walls. Now 54 years old, I have been a free man in Christ for nearly eight miraculously blessed years.

My recollections of the riot of 1966 are an excerpt from a forthcoming book entitled "A Walk To Freedom," written by myself and Bonnie Hendricks. No longer a man of hate or rage, I can by no means write as I once did concerning a memorable day from a long-ago and gratefully dead past. Still, to the best of my ability I offer a differing perspective as seen through the eyes and mind of a once young madman who one day rose up against what he knew to be his corrupt and deadly keepers. The Pen was a cesspool of abnormality. The keepers were as demented as the kept.

On the morning of July 8, 1966, I was released from a six-month stay in the South Wing of the Maryland State Penitentiary, the disciplinary unit of the hundred-year-old, foreboding, inner-city tomb of a prison. I had spent much of the past few years being ushered in and out of lockup; my insane behavior at times being viewed as acts of a mental incompetent, at other times the deeds of an absolute fool. Overall, I had proven to be a totally disruptive presence in the midst of a totally dehumanizing environment. Along with regulars such as Larry Paoli, Jimmy Campbell, Harry McClellan, Charlie Jenkins, Buddy Boyer, Robert "Skinny Minny" Dring, Harvey Flynn, Jerry Booth, Tom Hadder, Billy Bartley et al, I was one of the cons who always presented major problems for the keepers. My deeds were such that I was a mainstay in Hadder's all-night lockup trivia games. I was constantly being punished for acting insanely in an institution devoted to insanity. Such is the nature of reality of life in a cage. At the age of 24, I was a maddened nonentity of volcanic dysfunction. Having just spent 180 days in solitary confinement, I once again departed the South Wing in my search for my next high. The past six months had gone by far too slowly. John was ready to act the fool, again.

July 8, 1966, was an oppressively hot day. By noon the temperature would pass 100 degrees. Fresh out of lockup, I was walking to the chow hall with Tom Hadder when we and many other cons saw a number of South Wing "Goon Squad" guards drag a bloodied and unconscious con named Liddy Jones through the prison yard on the way to the hospital. Rumors spread quickly; as it turned out they were easily believable and quite true. It was whispered that when Jones had reacted to a Goon Squad assault by doing some impressive bone-breaking himself, the Squad had been inspired to new heights of barbaric pleasures, going beyond their accustomed "treatment" by stomping Jones into just so much human pulp. So arrogant in their practiced barbarism, the Goon Squad gloried in their seemingly invincible brutality as they ho-hum carried Jones' unconscious body past the hateful eyes of men who too well knew the feel of the "Man's" terrible lash of cold and abusive power.

Hell. Everyone knew there would be no united resistance. After all -- the Pen was more than a century old. No one had ever mounted a real threat to the official reign of administrative terror in the lives of the inmates -- society's losers. So what if a con or two was permanently disabled or even died every now and then? The Pen was a long-corrupted political and bureaucratic plaything. No one truly cared about the truth of life in the cesspool. The "good" guys ruled the "bad" guys. It was as simple and brutal as that.

Minutes after seeing the Jones parade go by, I found myself at the chow table with Tom Hadder and Harry McClellan. The three of us were well acquainted, having spent much misery together in the South Wing.

Tom was a true son of the South; atavistic by nature, racist through conditioning, a man both extremely bright and dangerously paranoid. Harry was a black radical of the first order, a man who believed in his own superiority, a muscular thinker possessed of a charismatic personality who was then emerging as a factional leader within the prison's black revolutionary movement.

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