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RON KLINE/LAUREL NEWS LEADER

“You’re In Charge Now”
 

LVFD and LVRS Help Quell 1972 Prison Riot

THE LAUREL CHRONICLES

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By Kevin Leonard  |  This article originally appeared in Voices of Laurel Winter 2022

The summer of 1972 was a particularly bad time for Maryland prisons. In a span of 72 hours during July, three prisons in the state experienced major riots by inmates, with hostages being taken in the last two. The first riot was at the medium-security Maryland House of Correction at Jessup, followed by riots at the maximum-security Maryland Penitentiary in Baltimore and the Prince George’s County Jail in Upper Marlboro. 

Inmate uprisings were on the rise then, following the bloodiest prison riot in U.S. history at the Attica Correctional Facility in New York in September 1971. The most common complaints from rioting inmates across the country concerned overcrowding and inadequate medical treatment, meals, and rehabilitation opportunities, among other issues. Ten months later, as the Baltimore Sun put it, “The tragedy at Attica is still fresh in the nation’s psyche.”

At Jessup, Warden Ralph L. Williams had been complaining for months about budget cuts that left the prison woefully understaffed and lacking in maintenance. Williams, the first Black warden in the state of Maryland, was a proponent of alternative methods of rehabilitation, which was in line with the views of Maryland’s then-Corrections Commissioner, Edwin Goodlander. In an essay by Rollin J. Watson, published by Essex Community College in 1975, titled Letters from Jessup: Notes on a Prison College Program, Williams is described as “a deeply committed official who has not allowed security consciousness—which, as warden he must maintain—to obfuscate his vision of a better correctional system.”

His vision—and the prison’s budget constraints—were severely tested on July 15, 1972, just days after he ordered a shakedown of the entire prison compound. Along with an assortment of homemade weapons, drugs, and other banned material, the search turned up 674 plastic and glass containers, 102 of which contained combustible materials to make Molotov cocktails. He alerted state officials of the potential for trouble, but no help—budgetary or otherwise—was offered.

The riot was touched off when about 20 inmates attempted to escape but were wounded by a guard’s shotgun, according to prison officials. Later, when order was restored, inmates claimed that only one tried to escape and that “the guard violated unwritten prison codes by shooting at the inmate before he had cleared the first of two fences that separate the recreation yard from the outside,” Rep. Parren Mitchell of Baltimore told the Washington Post. Mitchell and Governor Marvin Mandel had brokered a peace agreement with the inmates.

Whichever account was true, the inmates reacted to the shooting by rampaging through the prison, setting fires and destroying property. The office that contained prisoners’ records was destroyed in the fire, which prompted a prison official to comment to the New York Times, “Somebody’s pretty smart.” The vandalism also destroyed the electronically controlled gates to the cell blocks and the telephone system, which cut all communication with outside the prison.

Instead of the 125 guards that was considered the minimum amount to maintain control, Jessup only had 35 guards on duty that night because of budget cuts. When the riot began, most of the guards grabbed all the weapons and headed outside, leaving behind keys to the whole facility.

At 8:26 pm, the Laurel Volunteer Fire Department received a call for aid at the prison. Upon arriving, the LVFD and the Laurel Volunteer Rescue Squad were presented with “the worst” situation they had ever encountered, as Fire Chief Joe Robison and Rescue Squad Chief James Alexander told the News Leader.

It was up to the Rescue Squad to open the prison yard gates for the firefighting and rescue equipment, since prison officials had left their keys inside with the inmates.

“The prisoners had complete control of the building. They were throwing objects out of windows, yelling and making loud noises. There was much confusion and the situation appeared to be out of control for quite a while,” Robison told the News Leader.

In 2018, I conducted an oral history with Robison. He sat with me for hours talking about his life in Laurel and he provided some startling details about the night of the prison riot that were not in the newspapers.

Both the LVFD and the Rescue Squad had every piece of equipment in their arsenal present at the riot. It was all hands on deck for both. In the midst of directing his firefighters; coordinating with Chief Alexander and the State Police; and dodging firebombs, broken glass, and other debris thrown by the rampaging inmates at the first responders as they attempted to extinguish the fires, Robison was approached by Warden Williams.

“You’re in charge now,” Williams said to Robison.

“What?” said a confused Robison. “In charge of what?”

“The prison,” replied Williams. “What do you want to do?”

Robison didn’t answer. He was kind of busy. As the riot—and the fire—raged on, every fire company and police department from the surrounding area responded. Robison told me he never saw so many police cars and first responder trucks in one place. And he had to coordinate it all.

“Firemen were hampered in fighting the fires by inmates who hurled stones and other objects at them through the broken prison windows,” according to the Washington Post.

While this was going on, “We then assisted one of the guards with a self-contained mask so he could reach doors locked in order to get other guards and prison officials out,” Chief Alexander told the News Leader. “The LVRS mission that night was not one of emergency care but rescue. Our first duty was to help contain the area and prevent the prisoners from escaping.”

By 12:30 am, all the fires were considered under control, allowing State Police to enter and slowly restore order inside the prison, cell by cell.

But outside, in the recreation yard, about 200 inmates refused to go back to their cells until their complaints were heard. State police were preparing to smash through the double gates to the recreation yard with armored vehicles and force the inmates back inside with a contingent of 90 armed officers and police dogs. But, “only minutes before the assault was to begin, Mandel, rushing from a meeting on the Eastern Shore, radioed from his helicopter to wait for his arrival,” according to the Washington Post. When Mandel climbed out of his helicopter at the prison, he told newsmen, “We’re not going to have a repeat of what happened in New York,” referring to Attica.

At about 3:40 am, Mandel and Mitchell talked to the inmates through the fence. Mandel gave the prisoners ten minutes to select 12 representatives to meet with him and Mitchell and discuss their grievances. All other inmates had to go back to their cells. Otherwise, the State Police would drive them back inside with force. The prisoners agreed and their representatives met with Mandel, Mitchell, and Warden Williams. By 5:30 am, the last of the inmates had been searched and returned to their cells. Order was restored.

Damage to the facility was estimated at over $1 million. Four inmates and three guards were injured, but there were no fatalities. 

The order, however, didn’t last. In August 1979, 30 inmates escaped from Jessup by cutting through a steel bar, a mesh screen, and three fences. Eventually, all the escapees were caught and returned, but there was fallout. One month later, Corrections Commissioner Goodlander fired Warden Williams and his Deputy Warden, John Byrne, along with three other prison superintendents across the state. Goodlander claimed the firings were necessary because of “inadequate leadership,” according to the Washington Post.

Byrne disputed the firings, telling the Post, “Goodlander told me that the escapes had nothing to do with the firings, but I told him he was taxing my intelligence. Of course that’s what it was.”

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Rep. Parren J. Mitchell (D-MD) from Baltimore pleads unsuccessfully with Maryland House of Correction prisoners to return to their cells. The inmates had requested to talk to Mitchell but he was unable to convince them to end their disturbance. Governor Marvin Mandel arrived later and the inmates agreed to return to their cells after he offered to discuss their grievances with a committee of inmate representatives.

RON KLINE/LAUREL NEWS LEADER

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Prince George’s County Police Chief Roland B. Sweitzer arrives at the Maryland House of Correction to assist in quessing the disturbance. Behind him is Bob Blyton of the Laurel Volunteer Rescue Squad.

RON KLINE/LAUREL NEWS LEADER

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Maryland State Police and members of the Laurel Rescue Squad enter the prison yard at the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup after the Squad preyed open the gates with hydraulic equipment. Prison officials had no keys to open the gates.

RON KLINE/LAUREL NEWS LEADER