Yesterday, corrections officer Manus Gray was singing hymns to the inmates of the D.C. Jail, a peaceful scene that must have contrasted sharply with his memories of last month's disturbance there. Gray was one of the victims, struck from behind with a metal chair after he and several other guards ventured into a cell block in response to a call.
"It was a near riot, with people screaming and hollering," recalled Gray, a 14-year veteran of the D.C. Department of Corrections. "Suddenly, there was a tussle, and before I knew what had happened, I caught a lick across my head. I took seven stitches in my head."
Gray and three other guards took part in a gospel program for inmates in the recreation yard of the now relatively subdued jail, and Gray said he doesn't feel bitter toward the prisoners.
"Let me tell you, nothing short of death would have kept me from this program," said Gray, the father of three children. "When you're working for the Master, you can't hold a grudge."
"The prisoners joined right in with the singing, and when I looked out into the audience, I saw many, many tears--tears of joy," Gray added. "It's not always a bad situation when you think about the jail."
Gray and three other guards at the jail are members of a gospel-singing group called "The Seven Sons," which has entertained at the jail, off and on, since 1978. Guards Joseph A. Preston, Nathan Jones and Thomas Peterson also are members.
Preston, a former New York City policeman who has worked for the corrections department for two years, said he hoped the two performances yesterday would draw attention to another, less violent side to life at the jail.
"You've got prisoners here facing two life sentences," Preston said. "You'd be surprised to see the reaction. The shaking and clapping of hands. You would have thought this was a church."
The scene yesterday, as described by the guards, was a far cry from the tense situation a month ago when protests, violence and small fires erupted in the Southeast Washington facility.
The overcrowding that precipitated the incidents was relieved somewhat when corrections officials transferred 456 inmates from the jail to the District-run Lorton prison in Fairfax County. Before the transfer, however, more than 2,400 inmates were being held in a jail that was built to hold 1,355.
"The prisoners seem to be a little more relaxed," said Preston, in describing the mood at the jail. "But there's always the possibility, when you're dealing with criminals, of another riot. You just mind your Ps and Qs, not let anything get of of hand, and if there are problems, you nip it in the bud."
Asked during a recent interview whether the situation was now under control at the jail, Mayor Marion Barry replied: "They were always under control . . . . Even when they were out of control they were under control given the prompt response of police and firemen . . . . When you move in one 24-hour period 456 prisoners, with no escapes, no problems, no incidents . . . it was a terrific operation."
The Seven Sons put on two grospel shows yesterday, one in the morning for about 100 women inmates, and an afternoon performance for about 300 male inmates in the recreation yard, where a makeshift stage and sound system were set up.
Guards refused to admit reporters or photographers for either program, explaining that prior approval from a corrections administrator was required.
The group, including Elijah Thorne, a mechanic, Frank Robinson, a private security officer, and Clarence Presbury, a retired U.S. Department of Agriculture employe, sang such old hymns as "Trust in God," "There Are Days," "I'm a Pilgrim," and "Know Who Holds Tomorrow."