Old `Pen' has a violent past

Escapes, killings, corruption and riots mark its 196-year history

June 02, 2007|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,Sun reporter

Yesterday's melee at the Metropolitan Transition Center in East Baltimore brought back memories of its notorious, violence-soaked past, when it was known simply as the Maryland Pen.

The knife fight in the outdoor yard that left at least 18 inmates seriously injured, three with life-threatening wounds, was probably one of the worst, in terms of numbers, in the old stone prison's 196-year history, said Wallace Shugg, author of A Monument to Good Intentions: The Story of the Maryland Penitentiary, 1804--1995.

But it was hardly the most violent episode in the annals of the oldest continuously operating prison in the Western Hemisphere.

The penitentiary, which opened in 1811 with 51 convicts in what were then the outskirts of Baltimore, was hailed as a humane alternative to sentencing convicts to duty on the city's "wheelbarrow gangs," Shugg wrote.

But the cruelty of the guards, systemic corruption and increasingly violent inmates took their toll on the aging prison over the years.

The 1930s were marked by prisoner unrest, with prisoners staging wage strikes and rioting. Inmates who rioted were punished by being tossed into the prison's dungeon.

Overcrowding in the 1950s made conditions ever more dangerous, and City Council President Arthur B. Price decried it as a "dynamite box."

Through the 1970s and 1980s, killings of inmates by other inmates and escapes made headlines in The Sun.

In October 1984, a convicted murderer being held at the penitentiary killed Officer Herman L. Toulson Jr., the first Maryland correctional officer killed on duty.

Several months later, seven guards were charged with beating three inmates in an apparent retaliation.

From 1978 to 1987, at least eight inmates were killed in the prison and more than a dozen committed suicide, according to newspaper reports.

That was when the change to the Transition Center began.

After Toulson's death, the rusted south wing dormitories were demolished and replaced. The Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center - commonly known as Supermax - was erected nearby to house the state's most dangerous criminals.

But inmate riots continued into the 1990s, and by the middle of the decade, the state began transferring hard-core criminals to a new maximum-security prison in Jessup. The penitentiary was used for inmates serving short sentences and those who had served all but two years of their terms.

In 1998, the Maryland State Penitentiary was renamed the Metropolitan Transition Center to reflect its new mission. It continues to house Maryland's execution chamber. Death row inmates, now housed at Supermax, are moved to cells near the transition center's infirmary a few days before execution.

The center has been relatively tranquil recently. The factories in the cavernous yard were demolished to make way for meditation gardens tended by inmates, with tile-and-shell steppingstones inscribed with messages including "Watch Your Character, It Becomes Your Destiny."

For prison buffs such as Shugg, the building retains a bit of romance as the former home of "Tunnel Joe" Holmes, who in 1951 became the only inmate to tunnel his way out of the penitentiary, digging 70 feet to freedom. The 39-year inmate was captured several weeks later.

Shugg, 78, recently visited the prison's west wing while working on a documentary about Tunnel Joe's escape. He said the prison appeared to be secure and orderly, and he expressed surprise at yesterday's outbreak of violence.

Shugg described the Metropolitan Transition Center as a "kindler, gentler" prison.

"The people there are doing a difficult job," he said, "and they're doing it about as well as anybody anywhere. "

gadi.dechter@baltsun.com

Sun researcher Paul McCardell and Sun reporter Greg Garland contributed to this article.

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