Problems have long beset Jessup prison

Recent violence apparently has no precedent, however

July 27, 2006|By SUMATHI REDDY AND RONA MARECH | SUMATHI REDDY AND RONA MARECH,SUN REPORTERS

To prisoners, it's simply "The Cut," a maximum-security prison in Jessup officially known as the Maryland House of Correction.

No one seems to know the origins of the nickname, but some have their own explanations.

"To me it meant it was one of the worst prisons in the state," said Kenneth Bailey-El, 37, who served time in the early 1990s for armed robbery.

"It's because of all the violence that goes on there, so many people get cut and stabbed there," said John Mitchell, 66, who spent 15 years in the adjacent Maryland Correctional Institution. "Most of it, you don't even hear about."

Since its inception in 1878, the House of Correction has been beset by problems, including overcrowding, inmates attacking each other and the smuggling of contraband such as drugs and tobacco into the prison.

But the rash of violence at the 1,100-inmate prison this year appears to be unprecedented.

A 41-year-old correctional officer was stabbed to death Tuesday night by three inmates who were supposed to be in lockdown. Two other officers were stabbed and seriously injured in March. And three inmates have been killed since May, including a popular Sunni Muslim inmate leader who was fatally stabbed two weeks ago.

"It's a dangerous place," said Wallace Shugg, author of A Monument to Good Intentions: The Story of the Maryland Penitentiary.

"There's always been trouble at the pen and at the House of Correction," said Shugg, who taught writing at the Jessup prison in 1996.

Prisons are affected by events outside their walls, Shugg said. During the Depression, conditions in prisons were relatively tame, but unrest increased in the 1950s and during the civil rights movement, he said.

In recent decades, increased gang activity outside and inside prisons has fueled violence. In the 1980s, the Baltimore-Washington drug wars spilled into the House of Correction.

Typically, five to eight corrections officers in the United States are killed by inmates while on duty each year, said Ron Angelone, a former director of corrections in Virginia and Nevada who heads a correctional consulting company.

"Multiply that by probably 100 for the numbers that are hurt by inmates," he said.

Edward Cohn, executive director of the National Major Gang Task Force in Indianapolis, said it is not uncommon for corrections personnel to be singled out and hurt or killed.

"Obviously, this prison does have an unusual history with the number of homicides they've had," he said of the House of Correction.

Larry D. Kump, chapter president of the Maryland Classified Employees Association, said the problems facing the House of Correction are systemwide.

"We've got an ongoing problem with escalating inmate violence, endangering our inmates, staff and programming," he said.

More jobs for inmates and additional single cells are needed, Kump said, adding, "I think we should look at all the prisons in the Baltimore area."

State Sen. Verna L. Jones, a Baltimore Democrat, said that if she is re-elected, she plans to reintroduce a bill in the next legislative session to study violence in the state's correctional system. The bill died in a House committee this year.

The bill called for the formation of a state commission to study violence involving staff members and inmates at all of the state's prisons.

"It was to really look at what are the causes of this violence behavior, where it stemmed from and to see what corrective measures we could take," Jones said.

She was moved to introduce the bill by the violence at the Central Booking and Intake Facility and the Baltimore City Detention Center, Jones said.

"When you have violence in prison, a lot of it's not reported," she said. "We really need to get a handle on this."

For inmates who have spent time there, "The Cut" is a place they don't want to remember.

Barney McNeal, 40, was there for 18 months from 1998 to 2000. He recalls fights breaking out "pretty much every other day."

"If you really want to do something to somebody, you can because there weren't enough corrections officers," McNeal said. "Pretty much the inmates run the place. You're dealing with guys with heavy time there, guys who aren't coming home."

Some advocates say it takes an incident such as the death of an officer to highlight conditions that have long been neglected.

"The Maryland prison population has been ignored for so long. ... This is just the inevitable situation that was going to happen," said Tandra Ridgley, co-founder of the Grassroots Steering Foundation in Harford County, a nonprofit civil rights group.

sumathi.reddy@baltsun.com

rona.marech@baltsun.com

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