First of two articles

The patient waiting on April 3 was typical -- young, conscious and bleeding profusely from stab wounds.

U.S. Park Police helicopter Eagle I landed outside the Lorton Correctional Complex that evening and disgorged a medical technician who rushed to a waiting fire and rescue ambulance. Inside lay a 24-year-old Lorton prisoner punctured by more than 20 stab wounds from his thigh to his neck. He was alert, but as they lifted him into the helicopter and flew off to the hospital for surgery, he said nothing.

"They don't complain," said U.S. Park Police rescue technician Kenneth S. Burchell. "They don't scream and yell. Even the strongest of souls would be moaning. You usually expect them to be scared, asking for help, asking for something to relieve the pain, but they don't ask for anything. It's like some kind of acceptance."

So it goes week after week at the District's prison complex in Fairfax County. Park Police rescue helicopters have landed there 46 times during the last 20 months to transport the most serious casualties of inmate violence. This year alone, Fairfax fire and rescue squads responded to more than three dozen stabbings at Lorton, including six that occurred within eight days in June, according to a fire department spokesman. More recently, on Aug. 22, a total of six inmates were stabbed at two Lorton prisons.

The rescue teams often find vicious trails of gashes on their patients' upper bodies, especially near their necks. When they strip away an inmate's prison-blue uniform, they frequently see a jagged patchwork of old scars left by knives and bullets. What's remarkable about those battered bodies is that they are so young -- usually in their early twenties, sometimes younger.

The prison violence that draws such frequent helicopter rescues reflects the ethos of a new generation of young, violent street criminals streaming into Lorton. Dubbed "the '90s inmates" by prison officials, these younger prisoners show less respect for life and authority and a greater determination to exert their brand of street intimidation behind prison walls.

The seeds for this more violent prison culture in the District and across the country were planted during the 1980s as the crack cocaine epidemic swept U.S. cities, putting drugs and guns in the hands of younger and younger criminals. Politicians fought back with mass arrests and tougher sentencing laws, and in the early 1990s, thousands of violent offenders began streaming into prison. Today, Lorton and other prisons face a new level of disruption -- and a new culture of prison violence. An unusually high proportion of the District's inmates know one another from the streets, and many seek to settle scores in prison. It's gotten so bad that the D.C. Department of Corrections recently has created a large-scale witness protection program for prisoners who cooperate with prosecutors.

Moreover, Lorton's small complex of aging dormitory-style prison facilities makes it difficult to isolate and separate young, aggressive inmates. In the 1,669-bed Occoquan Facility alone, about one of every five prisoners today is a convicted murderer.

Nearly one-third of the felons in the system are serving 20 years or more, including about 1,000 with life sentences. It's no wonder, officials say, that some are willing to commit more crimes inside. All this is forcing District prison officials to confront a new array of frightening challenges as wardens try to control inmates who often behave as if they have nothing to lose.

During the last three years, there were, on average, six beatings, stabbings or other assaults a week on inmates or correctional officers in the District's 9,185-inmate system. During the same period, 11 inmates were killed, rivaling the 12 inmate homicides in New York, where the prison population is about six times as large. The 24-year-old stabbed 20 times on April 3 might have been another fatality, but he survived, only to be shipped to Lorton's Maximum Security Facility.

Making matters worse, D.C. Corrections faces the same pressures that other District government agencies struggle against: under-staffing, budgetary shortages and an inability to plan and spend confidently for the future.

D.C. Corrections Director Margaret A. Moore fears that the Lorton complex -- six prisons with custody levels ranging from minimum to maximum security -- has become "one of the most dangerous prison systems in the nation."

Adds longtime correctional officer and former Corrections labor committee chairman Robert M. Washington: "The inmates are more violent than ever before, and we take a chance every day we walk into a prison. These inmates go from words to attempted homicide." A Culture of Intimidation

Occoquan Warden John S. Henderson, a tall and wiry 27-year employee of D.C. Corrections, remembers vividly when he first realized that his system was dealing with a new kind of prisoner. He was running the D.C. jail at the time. "I got a funny note" from a group of inmates, Henderson said. "They said: We know where you live. . . . We can get you any day.' " The note correctly named the street where Henderson lived.

That was just the beginning for Henderson. These days, he says, intimidation of staff members by prisoners is routine in the D.C. system. "They will tell an officer: I'll kick your butt. I won't be locked up all the time. You drive a Mercury car. It's blue, right?' "

So serious is the concern that some correctional officers worry about the staff parking lot at some Lorton prisons, fearing that their cars could be identified from prison windows and that inmates might order someone to ambush them in the parking lot or follow them home. Officers also talk warily about bumping into ex-inmates at convenience stories, gas stations or restaurants. In the past, they say, they might have stopped for a chat; now, they keep their distance because they worry about the possibility of being attacked.

Seared in the memories of many officers is the case of Ronald Richardson, a D.C. correctional officer who was ambushed and shot 13 times in the street outside his home in 1991 as he prepared to testify as a witness in a criminal case. A D.C. man convicted in Richardson's killing is now a prisoner at Lorton.

Some officers admit to carrying guns for protection. The Corrections Department prohibits officers from toting weapons when they are off duty and reiterated the policy in 1994 after discovering that some officers were bringing their personal weapons to work and locking them in their cars in the prison parking lots. A department order called the possession of weapons on prison property a "security risk of the highest magnitude." Nonetheless, some officers continue to arm themselves. Carlton Butler, acting chairman of the correctional officers' union labor committee, said that this year, the union had to defend two officers caught carrying weapons while they were off duty.

One officer, who asked not to be identified, said that after receiving daily threats from inmates, he bought and registered a 9mm semiautomatic pistol in Maryland and took his wife to the shooting range to teach her how to use a weapon.

"Once you walk out of that prison facility, you are on your own," he said. "I fear for my safety and for my family. I realized that some of {the inmates} were getting out in six months or four weeks. . . . Some of the same ones who threatened me, I have seen on the street."

The officer carried his gun every day for about eight months -- until he was arrested in the District and charged with carrying a firearm that had not been registered in the city. He is trying to get the case dismissed.

Another officer recalled that when he began working at the Lorton complex in the early 1980s, he did not worry that conflicts with inmates might follow him home. But beginning about six years ago, he said, the inmates started to change. They became boldly defiant and unpredictable.

"You could end up in a physical confrontation with an inmate that he will not forgive you for," the officer said. "I can write a report that would require an inmate to do more time or end up in maximum security, and in retaliation, he could send someone to my house. There is never a moment when things are settled. They are dangerous throughout. You can never turn your back."

The change inside the District's prisons is rooted in the last decade, when many of today's inmates were still grade-school students or just entering their teens. New levels of criminal brazenness stalked the city's children: Kendall Merriweather, 17, killed over a boombox; Sean Smith, 15, murdered over his red ski jacket. Outrage over seemingly senseless deaths yielded to fear as dapper young drug dealers added a new accessory, the 9mm semiautomatic pistol, which became during the late 1980s and early 1990s the easy-to-obtain weapon of choice.

Loosely knit neighborhood crews considered no place off limits to turf feuds and gun battles -- not skating rinks, nightclubs, school halls or rush-hour traffic. Marcia Williams, a young mother driving her three children home on North Capitol Street, was caught in a cross-fire and killed. For their role in her death, four men, all in their early twenties, received prison sentences ranging from 20 to 44 years. They joined many of their peers at Lorton, where 40 percent of the inmates are age 30 or younger.

In prison without their guns or their trademark street uniforms -- bulky coats and baggy, low-slung jeans -- many of the new prisoners were exposed: scared, skinny and just beyond boyhood. But the new generation adapted. They combined the prison weapon of choice -- a shank, or homemade knife -- with an aptitude for ambush. They threatened the weak. They attacked adversaries in bands.

Victor, 25, a prisoner at Lorton's Occoquan prison, said that when he first entered prison eight years ago, new arrivals quickly learned that there was an inmate prison code and that the older inmates ran things. Now, things don't work that way.

"This is a playground for the young ones," Victor said. "The young guys are making the calls. They run everything -- the drugs coming in, who gets their hair cut first at the barber shop. When you take on a guy here, you might be taking on five or 10 of his buddies."

In one incident, Lorton officers said, several prisoners stabbed another inmate and for a time refused to surrender their weapons. Later, when the inmates learned that the victim had survived, they boldly marched off to the infirmary to try again to kill him.

Seven months into his mandatory 69-year sentence, convicted teen murderer Henry "Little Man" James -- who reportedly said he "felt like killing somebody" just before fatally shooting a woman on the Anacostia Freeway -- tried in 1993 to kill again as an inmate at Lorton's Maximum Security Facility. James stabbed a fellow District inmate after a Bible study class. Four months later, he jabbed a homemade ice pick into the neck and back of another inmate. D.C. officials concluded that the only way to control James was to get rid of him -- they convinced the federal Bureau of Prisons to send him to a prison in Illinois.

Some inmates behave as if prison is new street turf to be claimed and defended.

Correctional officers say individual inmates will drape their shirts over a prison telephone or a chair in the television room and dare anyone to use the item. Even the mildest challenge to such territorial marking, inmates and officers say, can create a potentially dangerous conflict.

Joseph Watson, a 39-year-old prisoner, recalled a night when, after playing 12 games of chess, he was approached by another prisoner who demanded his chair. Watson refused to move. The other prisoner grabbed him around the neck and threw him to the floor. Watson decided not to retaliate; these days at Lorton, few conflicts stop at just a fistfight. "Getting into a fight might lead to a stabbing," he said. "I wasn't hurt, so I thought I'd be a better man to walk away. I have a life I need to live." Open Chaos

Responding to a Code Blue radio call at Occoquan last December, Lt. William A. Diaz rushed into Dormitory 11, gasping as he ran through an invisible cloud of mace. Fellow officers were grabbing pool sticks, brooms and chairs to defend themselves. In a passageway outside the showers, fans and chairs flew through the air. Twenty officers pushed against a charging mass of 70 prisoners.

Shouting from both sides blended into an unintelligible roar. An officer slipped to the floor. His body became the line that neither group wanted to cross. Inmates kicked the guard and tried to drag him into their sleeping quarters. Officers tried in vain to pick him up. The officers held their ground, blocking the prisoners' exit.

Diaz watched as the inmates backed away. In seconds, some began climbing on beds and radiators in a mad scramble to reach the drop-tile ceiling, in which they had stashed homemade shanks. Others ripped beds apart and grabbed the metal frames to use as clubs.

In a last-ditch threat, Diaz shouted, "If you're not with it, get out in the rec yard!"

Any prisoner willing to withdraw from the melee suddenly had a way out: Someone unlocked a door leading to the fenced recreation yard. Quickly most of the prisoners calmed and even got in line to shuffle outside. Only three remained, two with knives. They soon were subdued.

Diaz returned, exhausted, to his station. It was a scene like none he had encountered in 17 years on the job, he said.

The riot that day -- a relatively severe disturbance but not unique -- is a symptom of a problem that makes it very difficult for District prison managers to isolate and control Lorton's new generation of disruptive inmates: The vast majority of the District's prisoners are housed in open dormitories that resemble military barracks, wall-to-wall single beds with footlockers. As a result, some of the District's most violent criminals mill together all day long and sleep just a few feet apart at night with no walls or bars to separate them.

In the aftermath of the December disturbance, Occoquan Warden Henderson was struck by what officers reported as its trivial cause: Correctional officers in Dormitory 11 had been emptying an inmate's footlocker when other prisoners began claiming that the locker contained stuff that belonged to them. Verbal sparring escalated to a riot with a brushfire's speed.

"With the inmates we've got, it might happen any day in any dorm over any kind of thing," Henderson said.

Lorton's Maximum Security Facility, with a capacity of 625, is the only prison at the complex with individual cells for the majority of its inmates. But on any given day, Maximum Security is not only full; it has a waiting list of about 90.

The District is considering closing the Lorton complex and moving prisoners from there to new prisons that would be constructed and operated by the private sector. Such celled prisons would alleviate major security problems, Corrections Director Moore said.

"It is difficult at best to manage young, aggressive, violence-prone inmates in open dormitories," Moore said. "Inmates know that there is not much that can be done to them for acting out. If they get locked up {in cells}, they are let out in a short time" because of the constant demand for the space.

At Occoquan -- Lorton's largest prison, with 1,669 inmates -- existing dormitories were constructed in the 1920s and 1930s to house recovering alcoholics.

The crowded spaces, the lack of work or rehabilitation programs to distract inmates, and the attitudes of younger prisoners feed a culture of intolerance in the dorms. More than once, inmates have cleared a bunk for a friend by setting it on fire to force the current occupant to transfer out. Officers sometimes go along to keep the peace.

The number of convicted murderers in the medium-security Occoquan dorms increased from 68 to 344 during the last five years. Stabbings at the prison have taken on the character of drive-by shootings. Last year, some assailants were so bold that they attacked their victims openly and in daylight, in front of dozens of witnesses. Sometimes the victims were taking daytime naps; other times, they were walking across crowded prison yards.

Prisoners have had to adapt to this dangerous environment. After one sleeping prisoner was badly beaten by someone swinging a sock stuffed with a padlock, a band of inmates began protecting each other by sleeping in shifts.

Last summer, a group disturbance in an Occoquan dorm left six officers injured, two of them stabbed, and three prisoners hospitalized. The melee began because an officer had the temerity to ask an inmate to move a sheet that blocked the view of a lower bunk.

And the violence continues: In a single day last month, five Occoquan inmates were stabbed -- two in a dormitory, two in the dining hall during the evening meal and one as he slept. Three days earlier, Occoquan prison officials discovered a loaded .22-caliber gun that someone had stuffed into a jar of peanut butter and mailed to an inmate. Extended Neighborhood

The management problems posed at Lorton by having to house so many violent prisoners in open dorms are compounded by a resource crunch that reflects in part the priorities of a public that is more interested these days in punishing criminals than in rehabilitating them.

Lorton prisoners increasingly are made idle by lack of work and education programs. At Occoquan, more than half the inmates are idle most of the day and spend their time lying around dorms, exercising and shuffling back and forth to the cafeteria for meals. Only one-third have jobs. Budget cuts have reduced funding and instructors for many programs over the last year. During one recent month, vocational training had dwindled to a course in graphic arts and another in boiler house operations.

At the same time, the fact that Lorton is the primary destination for nearly all convicted D.C. criminals means that in this environment of idleness, the city's most violent convicts are thrown together with enemies and rivals from the streets.

In one study, law enforcement officials estimated that for each person killed in the District, four more were wounded and another 15 to 25 were shot at and missed. Multiply even a fraction of those numbers by more than 4,000 -- the number of homicides in the District since 1986 -- and the enormous scope of the links forged by violence is clear.

At the Maximum Security Facility alone, two of every five inmates were recently in protective custody, segregated in cellblocks away from other prisoners largely because of turf battles, old and new, Warden David Roach said.

The Corrections Department's prison population manager, Edmund P. Walsh, estimated that nearly half of inmate-on-inmate beatings, stabbings and other serious assaults are connected to conflicts that began in the community, including disputes over drug debts.

"Some guys have pulled up their shirts to show us where another in mate shot them on the street," Walsh said. "We have predators checking in for protection." Witness Protection

In his small, neat office in the Central Treatment Facility prison in Southeast Washington, Walsh has the unenviable job of juggling the distribution of thousands of prisoners in a system that is already terribly crowded. He oversees the intake of prisoners and tries to find beds for them. He monitors the District system's daily prisoner count and helps manage prison policy and procedure.

And in between everything else, Walsh these days has to run a new, risky and demanding program: a full-blown witness protection program for prisoners who are or have been witnesses in criminal cases. The program's swelling size -- it has 350 prisoners enrolled -- reflects Lorton's new nexus of violence, youth and close quarters.

Normally, a federal or state witness protection program helps cooperating witnesses hide from their enemies by moving them in the civilian population. In prisons, officials traditionally have used isolated cellblocks to offer protective custody to inmates they consider vulnerable to attack for any number of reasons.

Walsh's program is something else altogether: For nearly two years, he's been trying to keep alive scores of D.C. prisoners whom prosecutors need or have called on already for help in criminal cases. Those witnesses often are providing testimony against fellow members of hard-core criminal enterprises.

Walsh has found that being guardian angel to those inmates is demanding, round-the-clock work. A decade ago, there were only about 10 to 20 criminal witnesses in the D.C. prison system each year. These days, prosecutors call Walsh about 10 times a week, typically when they realize that a cooperating witness is in danger because he is or may soon be in the same D.C. prison as a defendant or his associates.

When the prosecutors beep Walsh, he has to move quickly. He's been paged everywhere from his daughter's high school graduation to Washington Redskins games. He then must assess risk and transfer cooperating witnesses between prisons or try to ship them out of the D.C. system altogether, as needed. He doesn't change witnesses' names or alter their appearances, but he makes sure their status is a closely guarded secret.

Walsh often feels as if he's groping in the dark. To assess whether a given prisoner may be in danger, he reads court files and interviews prosecutors and inmates. But defendants who may want to intimidate or harm witnesses sometimes have so many associates or relatives in the D.C. system that Walsh can't be absolutely sure where a witness might be safe.

"If we make a mistake, someone can get killed," Walsh said. "We are terrified of what we don't know."

In the web of personal connections between Lorton and the District, the criminals often know more than the officials.

In one case, a witness whose testimony had helped convict several people of murder was put out of harm's way in the federal witness protection program run by the U.S. Marshals Service. But within two hours of arriving at Lorton's Maximum Security Facility, the convicted murderers were able to get back at the witness by trying to harm the witness's brother, who they discovered also was at Maximum. Corrections didn't know the men were brothers because they had different last names.

Another reason that Walsh is in such demand is the rise of street crews in the District whose young, violent members have no compunction about retaliating against perceived enemies.

In one instance, a young criminal who had testified against four defendants in a multiple murder case insisted that he could take care of himself. But his bravado faded as prison officials calculated the odds against keeping him alive. First they discovered that one witness in the case had been killed in the city. Another was in such danger that he had entered the federal witness protection program. Then Walsh realized that each of the four defendants had relatives in prison who might seek revenge against the witness.

As he started to count just how many imprisoned relatives there were, prosecutors notified Walsh that they had intercepted a letter calling for the witness to be stabbed in prison. The inmate-witness finally accepted Corrections' offer of a one-way ticket to a prison outside the District.

NEXT: Street gangs in prisons A MORE VIOLENT PRISON INMATES AT OCCOQUAN FACILITY, BY CRIME

1990

1995 Homicide

68

344 Rape

27

116 SOURCES: D.C. Department of Corrections, U.S. District Court Special Officer's report on conditions at Occoquan prison. CAPTION: Prisoners walk one of the corridors at Lorton's Occoquan Facility. At Occoquan, prisoners are housed in dormitories constructed in the 1920s and 1930s to house recovering alcoholics. CAPTION: A group of inmates is escorted into Lorton's Central Facility. The Lorton complex houses 6,110 prisoners, about 1,000 of them serving life terms. CAPTION: Occoquan Warden John S. Henderson displays a shank, or homemade knife, the prison weapon of choice. CAPTION: The solitary confinement area is part of Lorton's Maximum Security Facility. Maximum, the only prison at the complex with individual cells for the majority of its inmates, has a capacity of 625 -- and a typical waiting list of about 90. CAPTION: Inmate Joseph Watson decided not to retaliate after an attack. "I thought I'd be a better man to walk away," he recalls. "I have a life I need to live."