“I’m here to bring these stones back to life,” said McKnight, an inmate at Maryland Correctional Training Center. “This is a resting place. This is where I’m going to be one day.”
The partnership is part of an effort to not only repair the cemetery, but to provide workforce development and teach marketable skills in masonry that inmates can take back to the job market once they’re released.
“When you think about restoring cemeteries, restoring people, restorative justice, restorative opportunities, these are those opportunities,” said State Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services Secretary Robert Green. “It’s a home run in every aspect.”
The cemetery is the resting place for veterans from the American Revolution, Civil War and both World Wars. And it’s a landmark for residents, who often take time to stroll through the cemetery, which sits at the top of a hill overlooking the small town near Hagerstown.
The vandalism has left stones overturned and fragmented into dozens of pieces. One gravestone of a child — once marked by a stone lamb on top — was smashed in the road, leaving behind only the lamb. The town has not yet identified who was responsible for the damage.
Green said he frequently goes on walks through the cemetery, and when he came across the damage he saw it as an opportunity to help.
The crew of nine inmates, all from facilities in the area, were selected to participate in the program based on criteria like being on prerelease and being local to the area.
McKnight, who was sentenced to five years for possession with intent to sell narcotics, lived in Williamsport before his conviction. He said he’s struggled with addiction much of his life and sees the program as an opportunity for a new beginning. Caring for cemeteries is something he could see himself doing, he said — something to focus his energy on.
“That’s my greatest battle, addiction.” McKnight said. “This is going to work. It’s going to keep me away from trouble. It’s history. It’s something I can do.”
McKnight watched as John Acree, who specializes in cemetery repair, demonstrated how to clean the stones. He spritzed the stone with a blue liquid cleanser, let it sit for a few seconds and then started scrubbing with a hard-bristle brush. He then rinsed the stone with water, watching the green and brown debris wash away.
The potent odor of chemicals wafted through the air as the crew and a handful of community members repeated the same process. Acree pulled out his phone to show the before and after of a headstone that had been cleaned this way. A month after the scrubbing, the stone looked as pearly as the ones lining Arlington Cemetery.
Williamsport Mayor Bill Green said this wasn’t the first time the cemetery has been targeted by vandals. It was vandalized about 12 years ago, which cost the town about $40,000 to repair. That time, the damage had mostly been isolated to a newer portion of the cemetery.
With the latest damage in an older portion of the cemetery, he worried about how they would afford the bill. So when the head of the state public safety department had approached him about helping, he said it was a huge relief.
“They relieved us of that burden,” Green said. “This has been a godsend for us.”
There isn’t an exact timeline for the project to be completed, but DPSCS spokesman Mark Vernarelli said they hope to have the work wrapped up in three to six months.
Craig Ricketts, one of the men on the work crew, said he was surprised at how straightforward the process was, and it felt rewarding to see pieces of history being restored. He said he also saw it as an opportunity to build skills for a new life for himself. Ricketts was convicted in 2019 for retail theft.
“It feels almost like it’s bringing new life back into me,” Ricketts said. “I love to see a job when you can see a total transformation, somewhat like what I want for my own life.”