At the center of a group embrace Friday outside Mondawmin Mall's bus depot, Lorig Charkoudian stood bundled up in three layers to help her stay warm on a 67-mile run to Hagerstown.
The group — workers and volunteers from Community Mediation Maryland — said the conflict resolution program helps inmates stay out of prison for good by helping them repair relationships with their families.
But first, they said, the program must make sure the families of the inmates can get to the prisons. That's where Charkoudian's run comes in. She's hoping to raise $10,000 in donations to pay for the $40 shuttle rides from Baltimore to Western Maryland, many of which leave from Mondawmin's depot.
"In a way, the trip is a lot like the trip for the families," said Charkoudian, 41, an ultra-marathon runner who planned to travel 45 miles on foot Friday and another 22 miles on Saturday to the Maryland Correctional Institution in Hagerstown.
"It is a painful process. Having someone locked up that you love is painful for families. It's painful to be locked up, and these conversations that happen are hard. When I am doing distance running, there is a metaphor of pushing through the really hard stuff, physically and mentally."
The 7-year-old program connects inmates and their families, face-to-face, with the help of a mediator to work through unresolved issues that have fractured their relationships. Together, they develop a plan to help the inmate transition from prison back into society.
Charkoudian, who helped found the statewide nonprofit, said repairing those bonds is a proven way to reduce the rate of recidivism in Maryland. One mediation session reduces the risk of recidivism by 10 percent, she said. Three sessions drops the rate by 22 percent.
This year, for the first time, the group received money from the state prison system to increase the number of inmates it can coach.
Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said the partnership is "making a significant impact" by helping the inmates develop a plan before they are released.
Research into the re-entry program shows the inmates who participate are less likely to return to prison within three years of their release than those who didn't go through mediation, he said. The nonprofit has offered mediation sessions to more than 500 inmates, including about 35 since Oct. 1.
"Family and housing issues are huge hurdles to a successful re-entry, and these are what the mediation sessions iron out," Vernarelli said in a statement. "Ultimately, we're trying to release successful taxpaying citizens who won't re-victimize."
The state system's recidivism rate has dropped from about 49 percent in recent years to about 41 percent through a combination of programs, Vernarelli said.
Vernarelli called Charkoudian and the staff and volunteers at Community Mediation Maryland "unsung heroes in the battle to lower the recidivism rate."
"Victory in that arena means a safer Maryland for all of us," he said.
About 20 Community Mediation centers operate across the state, offering conflict resolution in schools to address truancy, in drug and family courts to help with working through underlying issues, as well as at other venues. The first center opened in Baltimore about 20 years ago. The nonprofit is funded by the state judiciary, AmeriCorps and private grants and donations.
The prison re-entry program is operating this year on a $200,000 budget, including about $150,000 from the state. Under the new agreement with the prison system, Charkoudian said the mediators expect to serve 400 inmates, primarily at three facilities in Hagerstown and five in Baltimore.
Developing a support system for the ex-prisoners helps ensure they are less likely to make "desperate decisions" that land them back in jail, she said.
"Think about the tough times in your life and how you got through them because there were people who care about you around," she said. "If those people weren't there, what desperate decisions might you have made?"
Many of the families Community Mediation Maryland works with lack transportation or can't afford to make the trip, Charkoudian said.
Charkoudian said donations to sponsor her run can be made to reentrymediation.wix.com/run4reentry. Money from the fundraiser will pay for families to take a shuttle to the prison in Hagerstown and the Eastern Correctional Institution in Westover. Trips to the prison on the Eastern Shore cost $47.
The job of the mediator during the sessions is to "listen deeply without judgment," support the family and inmate in a conversation and ask questions to help move them past small talk into meaningful conflict resolution, Charkoudian said. Then, she said, the mediator helps the family develop a plan for after the inmate's release, which can sometimes include a signed agreement to put their mutual promises in writing.
The voluntary sessions, which last two hours, are offered between six and 12 months before the inmate's release. Families can receive up to three sessions.
Wayne Webb, a former warden who oversees the state's correctional facilities and probation and parole officers in the north region, said he's seen the program work by helping the inmates nurture a support system.
"A lot of them have been down a long time," Webb said. "When they have become incarcerated, they can lose their family ties. There is no rapport, no relationships.
"With mediation, it allows them to set the tone and break through the barriers, so when they are released they know where they are going. There is a lot of questions and a lot of tension released through those mediation sessions."
Webb said the re-entry program showcases the state's commitment to rehabilitate prisoners.
"It's nice to be on the forefront of something that works," he said.
On Friday, Cornell Anderson was one of about a dozen people who came out to see Charkoudian off.
Anderson, who is a community coordinator with Community Mediation, spent about a decade in prison. If he had taken part in one of the mediation sessions, he said, he would have had a much easier time transitioning back to his normal life.
"Those bridges that I was trying to create with my family, I couldn't do it because I was all alone," Anderson said. "To see your family, to smile at them, to look at them, for them to see the different person you are … Community Mediation allows them to actually sit down and come up with a plan to better themselves."
The temperature Friday morning climbed slowly to the mid-30s while the wind whipped outside Mondawmin Mall. Charkoudian adjusted her directions — a typed white sheet of paper, laminated and fastened around her left wrist — and pulled black gloves over her hands.
"I feel grateful," she said. "I have learned more personally about what it means to love and to love in really hard times by sitting in mediation ... and figuring out how to pick up the pieces for the 10th time."
Stretched before her was 10 hours and 45 miles of road. On Saturday, she plans to lace up her sneakers and head out for another 71/2 hours on the blacktop.