WHEN TAX consultant Keith Timmons became the first person to volunteer to teach work-release inmates at the Baltimore Pre-Release Center, staff teacher Susan Witlin was slightly skeptical.
"He told me he wanted to volunteer and I asked him how. He said he wanted to make presentations on subjects that would help the inmates when they were released, so I agreed," she says.
That relationship has been fruitful, both agree. For the past two years, Timmons has taught at least one night per month at this state correctional institution at 926 Greenmount Ave. that houses inmates enrolled in a work-release program and who are there for no more than one year prior to their release. Schooling is a part of their program.
A tax consultant in PHH's corporate tax department, Timmons attended meetings of the company's Care to Share and Community Leadership programs. He discussed his desire to volunteer with United Way representatives who put him in touch with the pre-release program.
"I wanted to help someone get back on track in life," he said "The prison system is an area so few seem to look at. People seem to steer clear of places like pre-release. I found work there rewarding. It was a very safe environment, and those people need help."
Witlin recalls being amazed at how well-prepared Timmons was to teach the inmates about filling out an income tax form.
He also brought in other speakers. "It was hard to believe that one person had so many friends and colleagues who were so willing to help and who were so effective," Witlin said. "After every class the inmates gathered around seeking more and more information."
Witlin was at Greenmount for five years and only recently transferred to become a teacher at the newly established Herman L. Poulson correctional boot camp at Jessup, which is predominantly for young drug offenders. She came here from Philadelphia in 1976 and received her master's in communication disabilities at Johns Hopkins University.
Witlin says she visits the program on Greenmount and "I'm excited that Keith plans to double his teaching to include the boot camp."
Timmons lists the friends he gathered to speak to the inmates. "We had Steven Wright from the Chapman Co., a black-owned investment banking company, who discussed banking and investments; Joel Byrd, of O'Conor Piper and Flynn real estate firm, explained getting and keeping a good credit record and how to purchase a house; and Timothy Smoot, an executive with the Maryland Small Business Development Fund, spoke on beginning a business and financing it.
"A real hit was Takoma Tate, who recently won the Maryland State Body Building competition and who talked about fitness. Two PHH co-workers came. LaVerna Boston, in PHH's human resources department, talked about career opportunities and ways to detail prison terms on a resume. Al Wilson, an automatic data processing specialist, spoke about computers.
"At first, they were hesitant to go with me, but by the time class was over, each and every one had thanked me for the opportunity," Timmons said. And several have gone back on their own.
"However, the best of all was that every one of them offered to become a resource for those in the class when they were released," says Timmons, who this year received PHH's Volunteer Contest award.
Timmons, 33, is a native Baltimorean who worked his way through school, receiving an accounting degree from Towson State University, a master's in taxation from the University of Baltimore and is now attending law school. He has been with PHH for six years.
"I had a very supportive family. My mother, Emma, worked for London Fog, and my father, William, worked for Bethlehem Steel, and I have three brothers who live in the area.
"As blessed as I am, I want to give back," says Timmons, who also volunteers on a citizens patrol in his Bolton Hill neighborhood where he drives around checking the area one hour each week. He even gave a course on fitness to some Cub Scouts. He recently agreed to act as a mentor for a student at the Academy of Finance. He willingly speaks to groups and at youth conferences and says "my business line is 523-7069."
George Redd, the pre-release center unit director, says he's thankful for the volunteers and welcomes more. "Sadly, recidivism is alive and well here, and inmates come and go. And, while the purpose of an education speaks for itself in any situation, here education is a matter of salvation, and some do discover this fact," says Redd, who has worked in the correctional system for 25 years.
"My greatest reward comes after seeing a guy who has so little self-confidence begin to learn, and you hear later that he is making it outside."
Study is a requirement, and inmates must attend classes for 10 hours each week. Many receive their high school equivalency degrees, which makes job hunting easier.
Mary Hicklin, the staff teacher who replaced Witlin, also welcomes volunteers and adds that books and resource materials are in short supply. "We would particularly like to have some computers, old or new, that still work," she says.
To volunteer at the Baltimore Pre-Release Center or to offer some resource materials, call Hicklin at 333-4370.