When the searchlight beamed across Art Richardson's bedroom wall early this morning and awakened him from a comfortable sleep, he figured that some more prisoners must have escaped from the Maryland House of Correction down the street.
"I heard the helicopters flying, checked to see if my gun was loaded and rolled over and went back to sleep," Richardson recalled.
This reaction to a 30-man prison break in the middle of the night was typical of the men and women who live nearby in the small farm and frame houses of Jessup, a small community on the border of Anne Arundel and Howard Counties.
"It's just a normal thing around here," said Richardson, whose house is located smack in the middle of an area that includes five major penal and mental institutions. "You learn to live with it."
Indeed, the folks around here have good reason to consider the sights and sounds of prison breaks a part of their daily life. According to state officials, there are about five escape attempts at the Jessup area facilities every week.
"People who live on the farms see 'em running through the woods all the time. They just call up the police and say: "We got two of 'em down here. Come and get em,'" said Bunky Baquol, manager of Scherer's Market, across from the House of Correction entrance on Rte. 175.
The latest prison break did inspire a few signs of caution among the local citizenry. "I'll lock my doors and windows tonight," said Eleanor Englehaupt, who retired from her job at the Clifton T. Perkins Hospital for the criminally insane about six years ago.
"You see that gun?" said Englehaupt, pointing to a rifle leaning against an armchair in her home. "My son asked me if I wanted to load it and I said, 'Hell, no. I'd be scared to death I'd hit something.'"
Jessup residents also said they did not expect any trouble in their community from the escaped prisoners because the jailbirds would flee the area as quickly as they could.
"We're safer here than any place in the world," Baquol said. "If someone's going to escape, they're certainly not going to stay in the area with all the police and helicopters."
However, Baquol said, many residents were dismayed that the alarm system -- two sirens set off by prison officials in the event of a breakout -- had not been used the night of the mass escape.
Prison officials yesterday said they had tripped the alarm system but either it did not work or no one heard it.
"I was sitting watching Johnny Carson until 1 o'clock last night on my porch with the window open. If I'd known about the breakout, I'd have closed the window," said Margaret McAdoo, who has lived directly across from the prison, with her husband and several dogs, for 30 years.
"But I'm sure they all headed for the (B&O) railroad tracks, so it didn't really phase me."
Will Gunn, who lives just a few houses from McAdoo, said he was unaware of the break until he heard a radio report this morning.
"From 10 p.m. until the wee hours of the dawn you have 30 men running around these houses without our knowing anything about it. That's sort of creepy," Gunn said.
And although he generally does not worry about escapes, Gunn said he would feel more comfortable in the next few days if he knew the prison was increasing the number of men on duty.
"Thirty people at a time would indicate something's wrong with security," he said, "We can live with one or two at a time. At least we'd have a change. But thirty?God Bless," he said, covering his heart with his hand.