Hundreds of inmates at the Maryland House of Correction Annex in Jessup went on strike early yesterday - refusing to leave their cells to eat or work - giving prison officials little indication why.
Prison officials suspect the inmates, who refused to talk to the correctional officers, are protesting the statewide ban on cigarette smoking that went into effect July 2 at Maryland's 25 state prisons.
FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's Maryland section about a prison strike by inmates incorrectly identified the prison and the spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. The strike occurred at the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup. The spokesman is David B. Towers.
"The inmates are not saying anything about what their grievances are," David B. Bowers, spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said yesterday evening.
"The only recent event we would have to suppose it is connected to is the recent smoking ban," Bowers said.
The strike started about 5 a.m. yesterday when only a handful of the prison's 1,228 inmates left their cells for breakfast.
By noon, prison officials said, about 40 percent of the inmates came out for lunch.
Bowers said the inmates were not confined to their cells yesterday and were free to go to work, classes and take care of their medical needs.
"The situation is not in lockdown," he said. "We're following normal operating procedures."
Last night, Bowers said the prison was quiet and that bag lunches were put in the cells of inmates who did not come out for dinner. He said the prison is required by law to feed them.
When the smoking ban went into effect earlier this month, some correctional officers and inmates worried about potential violence from the more than 11,000 inmates who smoke and are being forced to quit.
Corrections officials had also planned to require state prison inmates to wear uniforms beginning late this summer, but that policy has been postponed indefinitely.
But Bowers said, "I can't say we expected this."
An employee at one of the other Jessup prisons said, however, that annex officers were tipped Friday by a "good source" about the threat of yesterday's strike.
"They're not surprised, they were expecting it," Ben Wainwright said. "Nobody's talking and that scares them. They assume that it's the smoking ban and the upcoming policy of taking their [inmates'] clothes away.
"These guys have been here 20 to 30 years, they ain't used to all these changes," Wainwright said. "The edge is really getting to them. To some of these guys, it's like a drug, you go through withdrawal."
Bowers said the annex provides a smoking cessation class for inmates modeled after the American Cancer Society's Fresh Start program, but said that the medical staff has been told not to provide smoking cessation aids such as nicotine patches to inmates.
"We're going to continue to monitor the situation and see what happens tomorrow morning," Bowers said. "See if we can get some folks to talk to us. We are taking this very seriously."