On top of a little hill behind the Maryland Correctional Institution, up near the cornfields that stand in the old water tower's shadow, a small crowd gathered to honor 23 complete strangers.

"Number one, Julius Bell," the Rev. Sally Jo Day said. "Number two, Ernest Quickly," Sister Dolores Chepiga said. And so it continued, one by one, until the list was finished.

All 23 were convicted criminals; all but one spent his last days wheezing and coughing and wasting away from tuberculosis; and when they died, nobody cared. Because the bodies went unclaimed, they were interred by prison workers on the Hagerstown facility's grounds, in unmarked graves far away from passersby.

The cemetery was used between 1942 and 1949. Beginning shortly after that, unclaimed inmates' bodies started being sent to the state Board of Anatomy.

The graves became smothered in weeds and brambles until almost no one remembered them -- until a warden and an inmate each stumbled upon a bit of history.

"Today we celebrate because this graveyard is no longer forgotten," Day said at a ceremony Thursday.

To hear Warden Lloyd "Pete" Waters tell it, the story began a few years back when he was walking the grounds outside the prison and found a single white stone.

"I'm a historian of sorts," the warden said. "History comes and leaves us too quickly. We fail to capture some things. So it bothered me when I stumbled upon this marker with no name. Maybe I'm peculiar."

Waters, who says he considers himself "the mayor of a town where everyone's convicted," decided that something had to be done to preserve this history. The old cemetery would be cleaned up.

"They cut down a few trees, then they got the briers and the honeysuckles," he said. "Then they got down to where they can mow it, and they put up a split-rail fence."

The result is a cemetery that looks respectful, if a bit simple, with identical white tombstones lined up in two rows. Each stone is marked with goldtone numbers. In the middle is a bronze plaque with 23 names and dates etched on top. There is also an inscription: "Do not stand at my grave and weep," it says. "I am not there. I do not sleep."

"I think it's from 'Chicken Soup for the Soul.' I may have suggested that," Waters said.

The plaque was donated by the prison chapter of the Jaycees, which is where another story of the graveyard's restoration comes in.

Douglas Arey, who has been serving a life term since 1973 and is a member of the Jaycees, had stumbled across another graveyard on the grounds of a Jessup prison about 15 years ago.

"There was not a quote from the Bible or the Torah or the Koran on it. Not a verse of poetry," he said. "It kind of shocked me.

"It made me think. There are a lot of people in prisons," he said. "But no matter how you're regarded by society, you still have accomplishments. You set court precedents." With unmarked graves, "it's like you never touched anybody's life. You never existed. That's what got me started."

At the Hagerstown prison, Arey began documenting the stories of people who died behind bars in the newsletter he edits. When he was in a closet getting paper for the newsletter, he stumbled upon some boxes.

"It said on them, "Warden's Historical Records," Arey recalled. "I'm not going to lie. I wanted to get in those boxes." And so Arey put a bug in the warden's ear. He began talking about the boxes and about prison history. "That's what got him in those boxes," Arey said, adding, "I give him all the credit in the world."

"I came across an old book that had their names and day they died," Waters said.

With the names in hand, the graves could be properly dedicated, Waters said, ultimately leading to last week's ceremony.

It was an unusual funeral procession. There were no friends or family in attendance -- the warden decided that trying to contact relatives of long-dead inmates would be impossible. Because Arey is not allowed outside the prison walls, he has never seen the cemetery. Instead, two minimum security inmates were selected to represent inmates at the ceremony. That meant that prison guards had to attend, as well. The warden and three prison chaplains each said a few words, and then the names were read.

The two inmates, wearing blue jeans and sneakers, took turns solemnly placing a white carnation atop each headstone as the deceased's name was read.

"It's bad enough being in prison," said inmate Kenneth Smith, 45, who said he did not know about the graveyard until recently. "Then to die here, too, and have to be buried on their property. . . . It's nice to remember them."

Mark Ernst, an inmate at the Maryland Correctional Institution, places carnations atop tombstones near the prison.Inmate Douglas Arey helped spur the effort to clean up the cemetery.