On his own Willie "Cocky" Burnett spent two decades in the Maryland penal system. He was a terror behind bars. Now, he's (( free on the streets of Baltimore, but his future is uncertain.

November 24, 1996|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

In the end, Willie "Cocky" Burnett, perhaps the most legendary inmate in the history of the Maryland prison system, had no need to break down the door that held him. It simply swung wide.

And there he was, at the age of 45, suddenly upon the streets for the first time in two decades, a period when he had gone through the Maryland penal system like a hurricane - knocking down doctors and nurses, destroying handcuffs and leg chains, stashing razor blades in his throat so he could slice at his arms.

Now, after years in the toughest confinement the state has to offer, Cocky Burnett faces the greatest challenge of his life: Freedom.

It is the challenge of living like a normal man after years of defying society's rules, in a small West Baltimore rowhouse practically palatial compared with the isolation cells of his past 20 years. It is about controlling anger and regaining respect and rising above the doubts and suspicions that will always mark him.

Burnett's struggle is one faced by thousands of inmates who leave Maryland's prison system every year. Like many of them, ** Burnett has no real job skills, a terrible record of misbehavior and precious little preparation for the freedoms and responsibilities that await him.

Most of all, he did not expect to find that prison is, in some ways, more comfortable than the outside world.

"Truthfully, it seems like I had freedom in prison," Burnett said one day shortly after his release in July, listing all of the appointments and searches for shelter and income that occupied his time. "Now I'm in prison. All the responsibilities and things out here. I thought I had a lot of confusion when I was in prison. But it's nothing compared to this."

This year, close to 15,000 inmates will leave the state's prisons. Many of them eventually will return. According to national studies, about 40 percent of all state inmates in the country can be expected to commit another crime within three years of release.

That's for the average inmate. And Willie Burnett was anything but average. Arnold Hopkins, former Maryland commissioner of correction, describes him this way: "Every correctional officer's worst nightmare." Burnett does have some things many long-term inmates lose, like family members who still accept and take him in, and a woman who says she never stopped loving him and a 20-year-old daughter whose life is the length of the sentence he served but who still wants to know him nonetheless. He said he has never had a problem with addiction to drugs or alcohol, afflictions that lead many former convicts back to prison.

His daughter, Isis, was just a month old when he went away. When "Cocky" came to see her after all that time, "She just asked certain questions - like could I really pull doors off? Was I strong like that? I tell her, 'Sometimes.' I told her I changed."

But how would anyone really know if Burnett had changed? It is a question even he, sometimes, is afraid to face.

William Jednorski, the warden of the Baltimore City Detention Center, was a correctional officer in the penitentiary for many years, and wrestled with Burnett more than once. Burnett called him at his office when he was released. Jednorski wished him well.

"He's getting too old to keep coming back to jail," Jednorski said. But that alone, the warden cautioned, might not be enough to keep Willie Burnett on the right side of the law. "Society can be mean to you, too."

Burnett's history might lead one to conclude that he is still a dangerous man, though in person he appears well-mannered and under control. Some who know him say he can go either way.

"A human being'

Five years after Burnett went to prison, Jednorski, who was guarding inmates at University Hospital, was asked by the warden to take the prisoner to visit Isis, who was then just 5. She was scheduled for open-heart surgery, and it was anything but ** certain that she would survive.

All the way there, officer and prisoner cursed at each other, hurling the invective that, by tradition, often governs the exchanges between jailer and jailed. But as they walked down the hall toward the child's hospital room, Jednorski reminded Burnett that it might be the last time he saw his daughter. "Conduct yourself as a gentleman," he suggested.

And to his utter surprise, Jednorski said, Willie Burnett did just that. He leaned next to his daughter's bed, quietly and respectfully delivering words of comfort.

"Then we got back in the van, and Willie Burnett became Willie Burnett again, cussing everybody out again," Jednorski said.

"But it showed me that Willie Burnett can be a human being,

given the right situation and conditions."

Unaccustomed to streets

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