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MCI history includes violence

July 29, 2007|By ERIN JULIUS and KAREN HANNA

WASHINGTON COUNTY - In its 70 years, the Maryland Correctional Institution has housed inmates as menacing as its forbidding facade.

Built by inmates who would live there, what became MCI was the first of three prisons to be built on Roxbury Road south of Hagerstown.

The prison has withstood violent riots by inmates who once barricaded themselves in its dungeon-like basement.

Notorious criminals have made their homes inside MCI's Gothic-style walls where 2,100 prisoners, including 177 lifers, now spend their days.

Vernell Pearson, who arrived at MCI in January 1975, is doing life.

"This is an environment that you never feel safe in," Pearson said.

Heavy metal doors slam shut behind visitors passing through the foyers that separate wings. Correctional officers unlock the next set.

Inmates demand the attention of correctional officers by banging on the walls and doors of their cells.

The shouts of inmates reverberate against the steel doors of the cells, where stainless steel toilets and sinks have replaced the porcelain fixtures of an earlier era.

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The cells are 6 feet by 9 feet, Deputy Warden J. Phillip Morgan said.

In one empty cell on the transition tier, where the prison houses inmates who are scheduled to be transported elsewhere, flattened green plastic mattresses sagged on the bunks and yellow paint peeled from the wall.

"Nothing in life will prepare you for this job," said Gus Glessner, who has worked as a correctional officer since 1975.

Glessner saw what happened when a fight between prisoners escalated into a three-hour riot in MCI's dining hall on Saturday, May 25, 1991.

When he arrived at the prison, he saw smashed televisions on the floors, electric panels ripped up and sinks torn from the wall. Many of his fellow officers were injured.

Correctional officers responded en masse to the medium-security prison, which at the time housed 1,597 inmates. Officers worked their way into the dining hall, using tear gas, shotguns loaded with buckshot and their bare hands to regain control, The Herald-Mail reported on May 26, 1991.

Fourteen correctional officers and 44 inmates were injured. One of the injured inmates had gunshot wounds to the chest.

'Anything to get away'

A correctional officer who was caught up in the riot described the experience to the newspaper: "I was scared to death. I didn't think I was ever going to see my family again ... They were clubbing us all the way. I was just running. Running and praying. We were running, then staggering, then crawling - anything to get away."

In the aftermath of the riot, which resulted in damages of almost $1 million, MCI replaced wooden benches and tables with metal furniture bolted to the floors, Morgan said.

Although he was at MCI at the time of the '91 riot, Pearson said he wasn't involved. He remained locked in his cell and heard shots fired, he said.

And waited to see what would happen.

"You're in a cell, where can you go?" he said.

Glessner said he still worries about potential problems. "We don't have the personnel to monitor inmates. ... They (inmates) can be getting away with things we wouldn't see," he said.

About two years ago, prison staffing levels were cut and about 40 correctional officer positions were cut from the 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. shift, Glessner said.

"DOC figures show that in fiscal year 1997, there were 1,327 authorized correctional officer positions at the three Roxbury Road prisons. In fiscal year 2002, that number had risen to 1,399.

"The fiscal year 2007 state budget authorized 1,233 correctional officers for those prisons and the current budget has 1,306 - including 445 at MCI, according to David Romans, the deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of Budget & Management."

"I remember a time when I knew if a fight broke out, man, it was like a wave of blue, you could just see them coming," Cpl. Joe Charette said. "Now it's gotten officers worried that if it's an officer involved, how long is it going to take before my buddies get here."

Both officers expressed concern about gang activity within the walls of MCI.

In the 1970's, the only gangs with which officers had to contend were those out of Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, Glessner said.

Now, the prison that began as a penal farm for Maryland's nonviolent offenders is home to some of the state's most violent offenders, with gangs such as the Bloods, Crips and DMI fighting over turf and the contraband trade, Charette said.

Staff writer Andrew Schotz contributed to this story.

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