Maryland Supermax prison warden Sewall Smith remembers the day nearly 30 years ago when he wondered if he was about to die. As the Baltimore Sun recounts it, a prisoner had stabbed a guard, and Smith, a fellow guard, ran to the rescue. As other inmates shouted warnings of his approach, the man with the knife turned to confront Smith. “I already had in my mind, ‘I’m going to take the stab in my left hand and grab onto the wrist with my right and hold on for dear life.’ All kind of things started going through my mind saying, ‘Well, this is it.'” Inexplicably, the inmate dropped the knife, turning the potentially deadly confrontation into a wrestling match. Smith’s future turned on that moment. Nudged toward a deeper religious faith, his new outlook soon put him on the management track, and he rose to warden. Smith, 57, found time to help raise five children, earn a college degree, and attain ordination as a Baptist minister. He is retiring this month as warden of the Supermax prison in Baltimore.
For Smith, who has seen correctional philosophies come and go, it seems oddly appropriate to be leaving the job as Supermax is being phased out after 17 years of operation. Once considered the state of the art in get-tough detention, it is now thought of as too harsh and austere under current tastes favoring rehabilitation. “When it opened up [in 1987], it was needed,” he said. “We had a system where we had a lot of violence. Hardly a day went by when you didn’t hear about a staff assault or inmates killing each other. We needed to slow it down.” Now the facility’s population is down to a little more than a hundred. “I opened it up [as assistant warden], and now I’m seeing it wind down along with me. And that is a good thing because we have served our purpose,” he said.