Warden closing door on correctional career

Supermax head to retire, tend to a different flock as a Baptist minister

July 05, 2004|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

Supermax prison warden Sewall Smith still remembers the day nearly 30 years ago when he wondered if he was about to die.

A prisoner had stabbed a guard, and Smith ran to the rescue. As other inmates shouted warnings of his approach, the man with the knife turned to confront Smith.

"He got as close as I am to you, and he drew the knife back," said Smith, a guard at the Maryland Penitentiary at the time. "I already had in my mind, `I'm going to take the stab in my left hand and grab onto the wrist with my right and hold on for dear life.' All kind of things started going through my mind saying, `Well, this is it.'"

Then, inexplicably, the inmate dropped the knife, turning the potentially deadly confrontation into a wrestling match.

Smith's future turned on that moment. Nudged toward a deeper religious faith, his new outlook soon put him on the management track, and he became one of a handful of correctional officers to rise through the ranks to warden.

Along the way, he often served as a calming influence in tense times, while presiding over three of the state's toughest penal institutions, including the Maryland Correctional Institution in Jessup. Yet, he also found time to help raise five children, earn a college degree and attain ordination as a Baptist minister.

Now Smith, 57, is leaving the world of prisons behind, retiring as warden of the austere Supermax prison in downtown Baltimore to end a 32-year career this month.

"I've been blessed," he said. "I've been in some of the toughest situations in the division of corrections, and I've never been stabbed. ... Now I've been hit, but only maybe three times. ... I've been in tussles where there were a lot of inmates around and it could have gotten out of control."

For Smith, who has seen various correctional philosophies come and go, it seems oddly appropriate to be leaving the job just as Supermax is being phased out after 17 years of operation. Once considered the state of the art in get-tough detention, it is now thought of as too harsh and austere under current tastes favoring rehabilitation. He has changed plenty also.

"When it opened up [in 1987], it was needed," he said. "We had a system where we had a lot of violence. Hardly a day went by when you didn't hear about a staff assault or inmates killing each other. We needed to slow it down."

Now the population of the prison is down to a little more than a hundred, and they will be transferred to other prisons within about a year.

"I opened it up [as assistant warden], and now I'm seeing it wind down along with me. And that is a good thing because we have served our purpose," he said.

Smith, too, has changed.

He grew up in Baltimore, a preacher's son who tended to cut loose whenever he got the opportunity.

"If you could be out 20 days a year sick, I took 20," he said. "I made some bad decisions. I would party just like everybody else. And I was arrogant and into black power like everybody else, big bush and goatee and militant attitude. Went through the disco stage."

He took his first job as a guard in the old Maryland Penitentiary in 1972, at age 26. By then he was married, with a 1-year-old daughter and had a son on the way, and prisons didn't seem to offer much of a future. He planned on staying only until something better came at Western Electric or the steel mills at Sparrows Point.

But the other jobs never came through, so he decided to stay for a while longer. His boss at the time, McLindsey Hawkins, then the assistant warden for security, saw some toughness in the young man that he liked.

"He wasn't afraid of anybody," Hawkins said, "and that's what I needed in those days."

Then came the near miss with the knife-wielding inmate, Smith said, "and after that it just dawned on me that the Lord must be with me. Some years later I asked that same inmate when he came through on another incarceration, `You remember that day on the tier? Why didn't you stab me?' And he said, `I don't know, I guess it was because it was you.'"

Meaning that Smith, although tough, was also known as fair, someone who could be trusted.

"So I realized at that time, the Lord will protect me if I do the right thing," Smith said.

Before long, Smith's family was growing, and he was devising ways to leave the toughness behind bars.

"When things got tense, I really didn't let it bother the children," he said. "They don't need that. I had a little ritual that I used to go through when I was an officer. I used to always wear a street coat to work and leave my uniform coat in my locker. And when I would get to my locker, I would say, `I'm taking my street attitude off, and putting my jail attitude on.' So that way I felt like I could leave things at the jail."

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