Crime Scenes: New mission for Supermax, new name

Controversial prison now for federal pre-trial detainees

February 08, 2011|By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun

It opened two decades ago with the pops of champagne corks and an excited proclamation from Maryland's penitentiary warden, who called it a "Godsend." The official name was the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center, but everyone called it "Supermax."

Housing the state's worst-of-the-worst, the downtown Baltimore prison didn't do much adjusting or correcting. Its name became synonymous with a gulag, investigated by federal authorities who criticized conditions as inhumane, and targeted by lawsuits, many won by inmates.

The names of prisoners who passed through its dingy cells — where they were locked down in isolation 23 hours a day — are linked to some of the state's most heinous and despicable crimes.

Over the past few years, the occupants, including five on death row, were quietly moved from East Madison Street to Western Maryland. Most are now housed at the North Branch Correctional Institution near Cumberland, the newest Supermax, hailed — as the old Supermax once was — as the newest advancement in prison safety and technology.

On Tuesday, Maryland authorities officially turned the old Supermax over to the U.S. Marshals Service to hold federal detainees awaiting trial in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. It solves a problem for the feds, who had run out of space to hold people, and helps the state finally close the doors for good on what had become an outdated mode of incarceration.

Supermax was born out of tragedy. After a corrections officer named Herman L. Toulson Jr. was fatally stabbed by an inmate at the former penitentiary in 1984, authorities decided to consolidate the most violent and escape-prone prisoners in one place.

The idea, said William W. Sondervan, former commissioner of the Division of Corrections, was to make the other prisons less violent and better control the dangerous inmates. "There would be less gangs, less drugs, less violence," said Sondervan, who now runs the criminal justice department at University of Maryland University College.

He still thinks such institutions are necessary, but he noted two problems with Supermax.

First, it was in Baltimore, and many inmates housed in the far reaches of Maryland wanted to return to the city, where their relatives lived. It's better, Sondervan said, "to put inmates out where they don't want to be, so they have to work their way back to Baltimore through good behavior, rather than work their way back through bad behavior."

Second, Sondervan said, the Baltimore version of Supermax failed to adequately help inmates obtain an education and housed too many prisoners needing pschiatric care. That was a central issue of the many complaints filed by inmates and prisoner advocacy groups over the years.

A succession of inmates won federal lawsuits claiming abuse because of the windowless "pink room," described in previous Baltimore Sun articles as a "filthy, fetid cell where incorrigible inmates languished in isolation, wearing nothing but underwear, handcuffs and leg irons."

State authorities closed the pink room in the mid-1990s after the U.S. Department of Justice launched an investigation, which ended after the state promised reforms. Federal officials complained about lack of help for the mentally ill and those in poor health, and concluded that the facility's conditions violated protections afforded by the U.S. Constitution.

By 2003, even state officials had changed their minds and had begun talking publicly about closing the facility. "We are civilized people, and we need to treat human beings humanely," said then-Maryland Public Safety Secretary Mary Ann Saar.

Two inmates managed to escape Supermax.

Benjamin Harold Dean — serving life plus 105 years in prison for killing a tow-truck driver and critically wounding an armored-car guard — spent 16 hours a day for a month sawing through a steel bar, then squeezed out and slid down a rope made of clothing. He was caught in Ohio 10 months later.

Convicted armed robber John Lloyd Wells starved himself to lose weight — down to "skin and bones," Sondervan said — and then cut open a window grate and squeezed through the bars in 1998. He lowered himself on a homemade rope and hit the ground in front of a guard armed with a shotgun. He was quickly captured.

Wells and Dean were transferred to Arizona, where they remain. The rest of the population has been moved to Cumberland and elsewhere. And Baltimore's Supermax is no more.

peter.hermann@baltsun.com

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