Victims, advocates tour women's prison

40 see how inmates live in Jessup facility

April 25, 2004|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

The chances of Brenda and Raymond E. Shipley running into the woman who plotted their son's killing were slim, but that didn't stop them from casting furtive glances behind the bars and gates of the Jessup women's prison, looking for signs of her.

They didn't see their former daughter-in-law, Melissa Lynn Baumgardner Shipley, but knowing she was locked away from the rest of the world reassured them.

But nothing, they said, could ever make up for the loss of their eldest son.

The Shipleys were among about 40 victims and victims' rights advocates who toured the prison last week. Though tours have been held at the men's prison complex nearby, this was the first time there was such a tour at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women.

The two-hour tour gave victims a chance to see firsthand how inmates live.

Melissa Lynn Baumgardner Shipley, 33, was sent to the women's prison for masterminding the shooting death of her husband, Scott E. Shipley. He was a week shy of turning 28 when he was gunned down on his last day of work at a Westminster trucking company in November 2002. State police investigations and a two-week trial unraveled a plot to take his life in exchange for an insurance policy worth nearly $100,000.

Though Butchie Junior Stemple of Taneytown confessed to the shooting, prosecutors said, it was Scott Shipley's pregnant wife who planned the killing. While she awaited a jury trial where she was found guilty of first-degree murder, she gave birth to Scott Shipley's only child in March of last year. In January, a Carroll County judge sentenced her to life in prison without parole.

Raymond and Brenda Shipley won a battle for temporary custody of their grandson.

"It's always good for the staff to see the faces of the victims of the people that we keep," said Frank C. Sizer Jr., a former warden and the commissioner of the Maryland Division of Correction, before the tour began. "It also reinforces why we need programs, so when inmates leave the institution they don't go back into the streets and victimize again."

The prison offers a variety of programs and activities, including computer drafting, alcohol and drug counseling, training dogs for the disabled, knitting infant caps and booties for premature babies, and writing exercises.

The prison resembles a college campus, where two-story brick buildings form a border surrounding a grassy square dotted with picnic tables and a volleyball net -- what prison officials call the quad. One of the buildings features a library and several classrooms, and new desktop computers. Two large cafeterias dominate another building.

But the resemblance ends with a tall, metal fence separating the square from buildings that have no air conditioning and where the white paint is chipped. Here, under the constant whir of machinery, teams of prisoners sew uniforms, stuff envelopes and provide a newspaper clipping service for State Use Industries.

Others learn carpentry or electrical wiring eight hours a day. Everyone gets paid -- about $1.10 a day. The workers in the design plant do the space planning for all state agencies, including a $3 million project for Anne Arundel Community College.

Each of the 896 inmates is housed according to her security level. The prison was built in 1939 with a capacity of 200 women. The increase in female inmates forced prison officials to construct more housing.

Most of the general population, 450 women, live in two new buildings in 70-square-foot cells fitted with mini-twin bunk beds and television sets with transparent backs. About 96 inmates live in one of the older quad buildings. Maximum-security prisoners are held in another building close by.

Thirty-five percent of the inmates were convicted of drug offenses, while 19 percent were convicted of murder or manslaughter. About 20 percent were convicted of burglary, forgery or theft.

Myrtha Charlot was invited to the tour by a victims-support group from Montgomery County. Her brother, Pascal Charlot, 72, was a victim of convicted snipers Lee Boyd Malvo and John Allen Muhammad.

"I never knew they had so many things to do," she said of the inmates.

Warden Marsha Maloff said that because 95 percent of the inmate population will leave the prison, it is crucial to give them tools to resist crime. "If we can do something to help them to be more productive, shouldn't we?" Maloff asked.

Although some of the visitors understood why the prison programs are necessary for the people headed back to society, they were not as forgiving about those sentenced to life in prison.

"I wanted to see where she is housed," Brenda Shipley said. "It's an eye-opener, to see the locked doors and cells, to know she's here and can't get out. ... But it's not punishment enough for our son."

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