`The Cut' took on state's most dangerous criminals

Overcrowded facility was site of countless riots, prison breaks

March 18, 2007|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,Sun reporter

Whether they were stabbing each other with blades fashioned out of turkey bones or scaling barbed-wire fences in daring escapes, plenty of prisoners at the House of Correction in Jessup were scraped and scratched over the years.

And while inmates credit those episodes as the inspiration for the nearly 130-year-old facility's long-standing nickname - "The Cut" - its origins are far more mundane. The House of Correction, which closes tomorrow, is positioned on an embankment overlooking railroad tracks that "cut" through the rolling hills of Jessup.

Perhaps the mythical explanation just seemed more befitting the teeming brick fortress.

After opening in January 1879 as a medium-security facility housing convicts serving less than three-year sentences, the House of Correction soon took on some of the state's most dangerous criminals as its population swelled to more than 1,500.

It has been site of countless inmate riots and prison breaks. Correctional officers have been attacked and killed. For decades, legislative panels consistently reported that the facility was hopelessly outdated and needed significant renovations or total replacement.

As punishment, hundreds of inmates were once forced to double up in cells until they stopped a work strike - but years later, state officials would report that the facility was packed three times its capacity because of overcrowding.

In the early 1920s, the warden's daughter, who had established a group called the "Myrtle Club" to foster honor and structure among inmates, begged her father to let her ease a rioting mob. He refused to let her enter.

The most dreaded area of the prison was a series of seven basement cells known as "the Hole," a last resort for unruly inmates that lacked sinks, toilets or beds. The only feature was a hole in the floor for defecation.

"Every man by the laws of nature is entitled to at least some privacy, some solitude, some territorial area to call his own," one inmate wrote in a letter to the editor in 1979. "We have already been stripped of our dignity. Now we are to be denied the most basic of human rights?"

Mostly the House of Correction was notorious for its cramped conditions and outrageous behavior by inmates.

"The House is an old, poorly designed prison that doesn't lend itself to good safety and security," said Frank C. Sizer Jr., former commissioner of the Maryland Division of Correction. "There are too many nooks and crannies" that enable prisoners to hide their activities.

The largest riot occurred in 1945, when 900 inmates rioted for 3 1/2 hours in protest over meatless meals - stampeding through a mess hall and lobbing hot water and broken glass at correctional officers.

There were two riots over the course of three days in 1964. Eight hundred prisoners lit scraps of paper and clothing, and tossed them from their cells. Three days later 500 prisoners staged a sit-down over allegations of guard abuse.

The second-largest prison break in Maryland occurred at the House of Correction in 1979, when 30 inmates fled the prison after using a carbon steel saw blade to cut through a window bar and security screen in a television room. They then cut and climbed over three large fences topped with barbed wire that surround the prison. The last of them would not be captured until six years later.

During the early 1980s, there were a series of escapes at the institution. In 1981, an inmate escaped in a supply truck by hiding in a carton of toilet paper. That same year, another prisoner fled a House of Correction work detail during a storm - only to be captured while using a heat lamp to dry off in an empty house next to the home of the superintendent of the nearby Patuxent Institution. A maintenance worker borrowed a gun from the superintendent's wife and apprehended the inmate.

In 1983, a prisoner escaped by forging a court document ordering his release.

Sometimes the results of the prison's porous security turned tragic.

Three inmates who escaped in June 1988 were captured by police in Tallahassee, Fla., after a shootout. A police officer was killed at point-blank range, and four people were wounded.

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

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