The corn was only four feet high in late June, but it was enough to scurry through unseen and thick enough to hide a man with a broken ankle when they brought out the dogs. The new steam horn on top of the power plant shook the air, but the two blasts of No. 2 buckshot fired from the guard tower missed the prisoners as they raced toward the cornfield.
Six men escaped in the June 22 break from the Maryland Correctional Training Center here. All but one -- the suspected ringleader -- have been recaptured. It was the third group of six prisoners to break out of the prison this year, one group from a minimum security area and two, including the latest, from the medium security compound.
Guards and prisoners alike said this escape was routine -- routine in the way prisoners pulled it off, routine in the way officials reacted and routine for the reasons it occurred. And breaks will continue to happen, they said, despite prison searches, wire fences, electronic surveillance and shotguns.
The latest escape happened at sunset, soon before guards would have ordered inmates inside. Prisoners were playing softball on the large field behind the six modern housing units. Two days before, Donald E. Keadle, an administrative lieutenant, discovered that a pair of linesman's pliers, which can cut wire, was missing from the workshop.
"We had numerous shakedowns," he said. Prisoners were confined to their cells and the entire prison was searched, but the pliers were not found. Things were just returning to normal when the breakout came. A crowd of prisoners was lolling behind the backstop of one softball diamond. Suddenly, a fight broke out on another part of the field, and guards ran to break it up.
Protected by this diversion, and by the group of prisoners lounging behind the backstop, two inmates cut a neat one-foot by two-foot hole in the wire of the first tall fence behind the backstop and slipped through. A pair of wire-cutters had been hidden under second base. Four other prisoners quickly scrambled through the hole.
It was only a 15-foot dash to the second fence, but two rows of sensitive wire buried under the gravel set off alarms as the men crossed. Lights flashed in the control room deep inside the prison, indicating what sector of the mile-long perimeter was being crossed. Perimeter guards, driving around the fence in pickup trucks, were radioed, and the power plant whistle was set off.
A guard in the tower on the far side of the field saw the prisoners as they climbed the second fence, a lower one topped with barbed wire, and he fired two blasts from his shotgun. But he was too far away. A perimeter guard also fired and missed. The prisoners dashed the 20 feet into the rows of corn that surround the prison, and disappeared.
State troopers were called from the nearby Hagerstown barracks and came with their dogs. Prison officers joined them in combing the cornfields. Three prisoners were found within an hour, one in the fields and the others on the road to the south.
Meanwhile, guards quickly cleared the softball area and locked each prisoner in his cell. Not until each was counted could the escapees be identified. By that time, three of them had been captured.
Two more lay low for the night. One of them had broken his ankle jumping off the fence and the second stayed with him to help. Mrs. Nelson Baker, the wife of a prison officer who lives in the area saw them about 6 p.m. the next day and told her husband.
He reported the sighting, and state police and a canine unit from the Hagerstown Police captured the prisoners almost immediately.
But Duryea Johnson, a Baltimore man called the ringleader by prison superintendent Marlin Bachtell, is still at large. Johnson was picked up by Delaware police after his escape from Hagerstown, Keadle said, but he wasn't recognized because he was carrying false identification papers. He was released.
Johnson had arrived at Hagerstown in October after escaping from a prison in Jessup, where he was serving a 15-year sentence for armed robbery. In April he was convicted of another armed robbery committed during his escape and given a 30-year sentence.
"It was probably getting this additional sentence that made him decide to escape," Keadle said.
Guards knew from experience that the wire-cutters used in the break would be hurled back over the fence into the compound for future escapes. So Bachtell locked inmates in their cells for two days as guards searched for the cutters.
They found weapons, hacksaw blades, ropes and drug paraphernalia. But no linesmen's pliers. "Prisoners are ingenious," Bachtell said. Men who make a knife by melting razor blades into the end of a toothbrush, he said, can easily hide wire-cutters.
"We just weren't getting any information," Bachtell said. "So we opened up again." Prisoners wandered through the compound as they normally did, and guards were able to pick up tips from informers: The cutters were somewhere in the grassy area inside the prison walls.
A pair finally was found in the grass. But Keadle said: "They weren't the ones that were missing." Most likely, this pair had been thrown over the fence by someone on the outside and hidden under second base until the break, he said. The stolen linesmen's pliers are still missing.
Meanwhile, the returned escapees had been locked in segregation on the low hill overlooking the field from which they escaped. Meals were brought to their cells; they got one hour of exercise a day, a shower twice a week. A discipline hearing was held, and the escapees were locked in segregation for 60 days. They still face escape charges in a Hagerstown court.
Then Bachtell set about making sure the escape wouldn't be copied. The hole in the fence had been quickly patched with thick layers of wire. A grass strip along the fence, where prisoners used to lounge, was plowed and ordered off-limits to prisoners.
Bachtell ordered three rows of "razor-ribbon" wire, thick unshakable coils of strong steel wire with large razor-like thorns every few inches, and they were fastened to the inside of the outer fence. "It would be messy," Keadle said, if someone clambered over the wire now. A new guard tower is being built at the other end of the field. "We want to get some high-powered rifles," Keadle added.
Bachtell and Keadle said discontent and low surveillance in an institution with 1,801 prisoners -- many of them with serious offenses and more than 300 with escape records -- designed for 1,207 young first offenders, make escape more easy and common.
"We have no secrets from the prisoners here," said Keadle, the prison keeper. "They have us in handcuffs."
But some prisoners believe harsher Maryland prison regulations, which came into effect July 1 and make it more difficult for inmates to move about in minimum security sections and work-release programs, will make prisoners more anxious to escape.
James Reynolds, an inmate serving nine years for check forgery who escaped five years ago, said in a letter to a reporter that the new rules "took the incentive to try to get out through the system from a lot of people, myself included."
Bachtell agrees that incentives are the best way to prevent escapes. "Inmates have to be allowed to see the light at the end of the tunnel," he said. Bachtell and Keadle, however, back tougher prison tactics, saying tighter security will deter escapes by keeping those most likely to flee in higher security areas of the prison.
But they know escapes will not stop. "Any time you are dealing with the individuals we are dealing with, you are going to get escapees," Bachtell said. The very first prisoner at Hagerstown, he said, was George Boose of Baltimore. Boose was last seen in 1931, walking through a prison field with a rake over his shoulder.