ANNAPOLIS – Inside the noisy Maryland House of Corrections in Jessup, there is one section of the prison where it’s almost silent – no blaring rap music, no men playing pool, no one watching television or hanging out in the recreation area.
This is where 45 of the oldest inmates in this prison of violent offenders live.
These men who live in the “old man’s dorm,” as the prisoners call it, aren’t exactly old in years. Most are like Jerome Wallace, who is only 55, but is bald, missing many of his teeth and on daily blood pressure medicine.
This special section of the prison was officials’ answer to the problems of older inmates, who need more medical attention and are frequently victimized by younger prisoners.
Grouping the elderly prisoners together is an informal arrangement done in only a handful of prisons in Maryland. This section of the Jessup prison was reserved for inmates 50 and older about seven years ago when aging prisoners suggested it to the warden.
“Here, there’s peace of mind,” said Wallace, who has lived in this dorm for 3 years. “I like to read and I like to study. This is the place for it. If you have to be in prison, this is the place to be.”
The walls and floors in old man’s dorm are drab white and each cell has the door removed so prisoners can easily move around. Inside the cells each prisoner has a bed, a desk and a small locker.
Despite its somber exterior, there is an improbable hope inside. The men who live in this dorm – as old as they are, and as long as their sentences are – believe they will one day leave this prison, and that hope is what keeps most of them alive.
Wallace has spent more than 10 years at the Maryland House of Corrections, a maximum-security prison that houses some of the state’s most violent inmates. The prison has two parts – the House and the newly built Annex. In the House, inmates can move around freely within the open quarters and are watched by guards. In the Annex, prisoners are locked in individual cells and are under constant supervision. More than 60 percent of the inmates living in the House, where Wallace stays, will be in prison for the rest of their lives.
“I’ve been locked up for 18 years,” said Wallace, who is serving a 35-year sentence for assault and attempted murder. “People glamorize prison. They don’t tell about the times you lay in the cell and you don’t want to do nothing but talk to your mother. Or the times loved ones die and you can’t go the funeral. You sit in your cell and you think to yourself ‘Am I ever going to get out?’ You hope and pray for that day. And you keep (it) on your mind.”
The chance of release is what keeps the older prisoners in line, guards say. It’s an attitude missing from younger inmates who come to prison with long sentences and no chance of parole. To keep old man’s dorm safe and quiet, only prisoners who have compiled years of good time qualify to live here.
“Once they get that age they don’t get involved in the stuff that happens around here – the drug market, gambling,” said Maj. Robert Koppel, who has worked in this prison for 21 years. “They just want to serve their time. A lot of them have been here their entire lives.”
Serving time in old man’s dorm is different from other sections of the prison. Here prisoners have special privileges: they can watch videotapes several times a week and get to a doctor when they need one. The guards rarely intrude into their cells.
“They travel together to go to eat,” Koppel said. “They’ll walk to the store. In here it’s just like in the street, you have your stick up corners. If the old guys go by themselves it would be nothing for someone to take their stuff.”
After years of managing old inmates, officials at the House of Corrections thought it was a good idea to allow all the elderly prisoners to live together. There are 45 men living in the elderly dorm and a list of about 40 who want to get in.
The experiment has worked for prison administrators who are too occupied with other prisoners to give older inmates the special attention they need. Guards have established a trusting relationship and inmates know to look out for each other.
“The elderly population keeps our prison stable,” said Robert Ballinger, a prison spokesman. “A lot of them are productive and see the need to keep a level head.”
Before moving into the dorm, Wallace stayed with the mainstream population.
Although the prison is filled with convicted killers, rapists, drug sellers and abusers, Wallace was shocked by the attitude of the younger inmates.
“Many of the younger guys coming to jail already knew they were going to wind up here,” Wallace said. “You’ve got kids in here who killed just for the sake of saying it. A lot of them come in with life sentences and they don’t even know what they have. Then it dawns on them and (they) become angry.”
And that anger leads to trouble, Wallace said, which is why he wanted to move into old man’s dorm.
“It keeps me away from all that happens out there,” he said. “I can keep to myself.”