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Sorting Through the Years

At St. E's, Men With Violent Pasts Concentrate on a Quiet Occupation

By Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 3, 2005; Page C01

In a red-brick asylum for the criminally insane, 10 men with dangerous minds arrive in a fourth-floor workshop late in the afternoon. They amble in, march in, shuffle in, each man lucid to a degree, though most aren't allowed out of the building unshackled.

They've been locked up for years, even decades, behind the iron fence of St. Elizabeths Hospital, confined to a five-story fortress, a warren of green-tiled hallways, bolted metal doors and cinder block walls glazed institutional tan. All but one live in maximum security.

(Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)

Mark Melanson, a staff member, nods and smiles as he greets them.

"Hey, guys. How's it going?"

There's gray-haired David Jones, a long-ago medical student, a cordial, animated fellow in shrunken sweat pants. There's old Roger Lee Bailey, keeping to himself as usual, looking gentlemanly in a charcoal sport coat with matching scarf and trousers. There's rotund Alfred Osborne, who says he arrived here sometime in the 1970s and who offers to bring you coffee, his voice thick and deliberate, like a tape on slow-play.

And the others: all "NGBRIs," they're called -- not guilty by reason of insanity, which is true of nearly every patient in John Howard Pavilion, separated by acres of fields from the civil-commitment units of this Southeast Washington mental hospital. In a cramped office in his shop, Melanson runs a finger down a dog-eared list of the men he works with: "Let me see . . . we've got rape, murder, armed robbery, bank robbery, rape, murder, murder, attempted murder . . ."

He looks up. "You won't find, you know, petty larceny in here."

He doesn't worry, though. "They've never threatened me in 15 years," he says, and "these new psychotropic meds, they work very well." Besides, the work that the patients do under fluorescent lights in this 12-by-40-foot room -- work that seems maddeningly tedious to the staff -- rivets their attention for 2 1/2 hours a day, four days a week.

"I can't do it," says Melanson. "I get too antsy."

What the men do, for $5.15 an hour, is sort postage stamps -- tens of thousands upon tens of thousands of stamps -- old stamps, new stamps, stamps from the world over, boxes and boxes of stamps, continually gathered and donated by church groups across the country. Melanson says there may be a half-million stamps in the room.

They sit there and sort them, one by one, by country, by age, by type, by issue price, and sell them by mail to philatelists for modest sums, in lots or by the pound. Now and then a stamp turns up that they haven't seen before, and they open a catalogue, check if it's valuable. They've found stamps worth $60, $80, even $240, but not often -- which is okay. To most collectors, stamps don't need to be rare, just interesting to look at.

"Some of these guys, before they started this, they weren't able to focus for 20 minutes on a task," Melanson says. "They're punching at people on the ward and everything. And they come over here, and you see drastic changes in behavior."

Learning the Details

With Gregory English, you have to lean in close to hear what he's saying because he talks rapidly, with few pauses, and tends to keep his voice down.

"I'm a supervisor in this department, the foreign stamp department," he's pleased to say.

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