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A tuna can lid can be a deadly weapon

Nearly 500 RCI inmates convicted of taking lives

Nearly 500 RCI inmates convicted of taking lives

August 12, 2007|By ERIN JULIUS and KAREN HANNA

Editor's note: This is the final part of a three-part package about the three state prisons south of Hagerstown.

Roxbury Correctional Institution's green manicured lawns might remind a visitor of a college campus, except that one-fourth of the inmates at the prison have taken a life.

In fact, RCI houses the largest percentage of convicted killers of any of the three state prisons at the Roxbury Road complex south of Hagerstown.

Correctional officers must remind themselves daily that the smallest items, such as tuna can lids, can be deadly weapons.

Staff members have a daily reminder of the dangers of the job. Each day they file past a memorial to officer Jeffery Alan Wroten, a correctional officer who was fatally shot with his own gun as he guarded an RCI inmate at Washington County Hospital in January 2006.

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Warden Roderick Sowers becomes emotional when he discusses the slaying.

A few correctional officers quit after Wroten's death, but most have carried on. Shaken and sad, they pulled together, Sowers said.

"In order to survive something like that, it takes a team effort," Sowers said, his voice cracking as Jon Galley, acting assistant commissioner of the state Division of Correction's Western Region clasped him on the shoulder during an interview.

"You know when you come to work ... you can be attacked or taken hostage at any time. That's part of the job, is to make sure they don't want to attack or take you hostage," said Sgt. Gary Winters, who has worked at RCI for about 24 years.

Crime and time

RCI opened in December 1983 with 721 beds.

Now there are 1,744 inmates at Roxbury Road's smallest prison. Of those, 474 were convicted of killing someone, according to data provided by the Division of Correction.

Another 285 are serving time for sexual assault and 274 are convicted robbers.

Almost 10 percent are serving life terms.

Dressed in prison-issued uniforms, these offenders move along sidewalks from one building to another on the medium-security prison's campus, not unlike students walking to class.

The inmates aren't roaming aimlessly, however, Assistant Warden Keith Lyons assures visitors during a May 10 tour.

Inmates must carry passes and they have between 15 and 20 minutes to walk between their housing units and the dining hall for chow, or between the housing units and their job sites, Lyons explained.

Three correctional officers are stationed in a quarter-mile area of open space, watching all inmate activity.

Walking outside gives inmates a chance to clear their heads if they're upset or angry, Lyons said.

Long hours in cells

While inmates might wander under open sky for a few moments each day, they spend long hours locked in cells not much bigger than a cemetery plot.

Two prisoners who agreed to allow visitors to look at their real estate sat in their cells as hot air escaped through its heavy brown door.

Inside, toiletries sat atop a metal shelf. Shower shoes and cans of A&W Root Beer were on the floor. A picture of a scantily-clad woman was posted on a locker door.

Two lockers and a bunk bed took up a section of the room, and there was a television in a corner near a window that provided a glimpse of the green outside.

Work and education give many prisoners a chance to escape from their cells for a few hours several days a week. A coveted job is a position inside the prison's graphic arts shop, which pays as much as $130 per month.

A plum job

"It's like hitting the lottery to get a job in here," said Clyde Diamond, who has been plant manager of the shop for 15 years.

"When they come in here, it's as close as you can get to a street environment," he said.

Inmates get used to getting up every day, punching a clock and taking orders, he said.

Many inmates send money home, and it makes them feel good to help out, Diamond said.

Inmates at the shop, which produces all of the validation stickers for Maryland license plates, understand that to keep their plum jobs they must follow all prison rules. Causing trouble anywhere inside the prison will get them fired, Diamond said.

These inmates file through metal detectors on their way to and from work and all tools are accounted for before anyone leaves for the day.

The shops and sidewalks are reminiscent of the street life beyond the walls, but none of the inmates or staff can forget RCI is a prison.

At the end of each shift, staff members again walk past the memorial to Wroten.

For Winters, a good day at work is seeing his colleagues leave safely, "just hoping that everybody goes home at the end of the day ... Just watching each other's backs, making sure everybody's safe."

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