Uneasy goodbye to `The Cut'

Officers, families tour the closed House of Correction

May 06, 2007|By Laura McCandlish | Laura McCandlish,Sun Reporter

Sharon James can hear the echoes of inmates' voices when she passes the vacant cells at the shuttered Maryland House of Correction in Jessup.

Her visit yesterday to the prison hit close to home: Two prisoners wielding homemade knives fatally stabbed her colleague, David McGuinn, last July. James tearfully eulogized McGuinn at a ceremony yesterday during which House of Correction Road was renamed in honor of the slain officer.

"I just feel like we were left out in the open to fight this battle by ourselves," said James, 52, a lieutenant and a correctional officer for 16 years. Like the other House of Correction employees, she is awaiting reassignment. "I'm just wishing that everything could have been different."

State officials suddenly closed the prison in March after a series of stabbings of staff members and inmates. Yesterday's event was an anticipated homecoming for hundreds of retired and current correctional officers and their families, who reminisced at the antiquated maximum-security facility.

The House of Correction's more than 800 inmates were moved two weeks after the stabbing of another correctional officer March 2. Most prisoners now are in other Maryland facilities, many of them sent to the North Branch Correctional Institution in Cumberland. The most violent inmates were moved to federal or state prisons in Virginia and Kentucky.

Children gobbled up snowballs, popcorn and hot dogs served in the prison's cafeteria, where bug zappers still buzz overhead. A display case containing confiscated weapons particularly captivated the young visitors. Officers studied bulletin boards filled with photos of old colleagues.

The consensus among correctional officials was that it was time to close the nearly 130-year-old prison. But whether the Victorian-era fortress will remain standing -- for use in training exercises or as a Hollywood movie set -- has yet to be decided.

Warden Gary Hornbaker said that although he has mixed feelings about the facility, he believes razing it is the only course.

"The temptation is there [to use it] if inmate numbers increase," Hornbaker said while touring the prison where he began his career 32 years ago. "If we do it temporarily, the next you know, temporary becomes permanent, and then next thing you know, we're right back in the same situation."

Another visitor, Robin Radoci, said the prison today is a far cry from when her grandfather, John Dettler, served as assistant warden before retiring in 1969. She displayed an old aerial photo that depicted open grounds where inmates once farmed fields and tended cows, work that yielded vegetables and steaks for the facility. The razor wire-topped fencing that surrounds the perimeter was decades away back in her grandfather's day.

Radoci remembers she and her older brother getting haircuts in the prison barbershop and tipping the inmates with packs of cigarettes. From the second floor of their grandfather's home on the grounds, they watched the fires rage during a 1966 riot.

Dettler left the prison convinced that rules had grown too lax, said Radoci, who toured the facility with her son, Craig, and her mother, Midge Dettler. The final straw for her grandfather was when 21 inmates were allowed to attend a dance at the nearby women's prison.

Midge Dettler's husband, Jim, worked at the prison, too, until the day he died in 1984 at age 49. Stress from the job contributed to his heart attack, Midge Dettler said.

Robin Radoci is the only one still in the family business. She is a secretary and resident "jail historian" at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup, a job she has held since 1978.

While a train rushed past the visitor's entrance to the prison, Robin Radoci gladly set the record straight on how the facility earned its nickname, "The Cut." It sits on an embankment overlooking the railroad tracks "cutting" through the gentle hills of Jessup. But for inmates, the name just as aptly described the wounds suffered in prison stabbings and scaling barbed-wire fences in escapes over the years.

Andrew Johnson, a retired lieutenant, and Otis Merritt, now assistant warden at Central Booking and Intake Center in Baltimore, strolled through "The Cut" in matching black-banded Panama hats. Merritt, who began his 25-year career at the House of Correction, said he approved of the closing. But Johnson, who retired after 21 years with an injured back in 2001, said staffing cuts and poor training -- not the building's archaic design -- led to its demise.

Johnson, 52, complained of a withering work ethic and lack of camaraderie among today's correctional officers. Seasoned officers who forged bonds with the inmates and knew their jail history have been driven away, Johnson said.

"They're just whitewashing and sanitizing," Johnson said of yesterday's ceremony. "Why didn't they have enough staff if it was so dangerous? If this place was so violent, why didn't they have the proper training? To me, there's a lot of unanswered questions."


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