They didn't give away a refrigerator as a prize, but some of the state's highest-ranking public safety officials came yesterday to give special recognition to convicted drug dealer James Wheatley.
The 27-year-old father of four, sporting an oversized white Sean John T-shirt, hit a jackpot of sorts by becoming the 25,000th person in Maryland to wear an electronically monitored ankle bracelet. His award? A free personal counselor for the next 12 months.
It's all part of an unusual publicity campaign by Maryland public safety officials, who occasionally use landmark numbers in the home monitoring program to promote their efforts. The 10,000th person to wear an ankle bracelet won an audience with Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in 1995.
"It's a slightly unorthodox way to draw attention to the program, but our sense is that the more unorthodox, the better," Leonard A. Sipes Jr., a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said after the event at the home detention program's headquarters in Baltimore. "If this is what it takes to gain recognition, to gain citizen, financial and political support for an exemplary program, then so be it."
Wheatley is serving a six-month sentence on a drug distribution charge, and the last month of that will be spent on home monitoring while he lives at his mother's West Baltimore house. Yesterday, he chatted quietly and almost shyly with his new mentor, state government official Deborah Photiadis.
As mentor, Photiadis plans to meet with Wheatley a couple of times a month to track his progress and give him any advice he needs.
"My hope is that, if he has a bad day ... that he would call me," said Photiadis, who heads a division of the state's Department of Budget and Management. She promised Wheatley she would help him face the challenges of returning to the community and advancing in a career.
Wheatley appeared slightly uncomfortable as prison officials and state dignitaries - including Maryland public safety chief Stuart O. Simms - showered him with advice and warnings not to fall back into crime. But he perked up when asked about a new job he has gotten with a company that installs heaters and air conditioners.
"I have a very good work ethic," said Wheatley, who won an early release from prison two weeks ago. But glancing at his new mentor, he added: "Help has never been a bad thing."
Sipes said about 1 percent of home-bound offenders are arrested on suspicion of committing new crimes. In studies of inmate populations that do not participate in transitional programs like home detention, recidivism rates are generally much higher, according to Sipes.
"If we can get them to be crime-free and drug-free one year after release, then we have dramatically increased their chances of becoming taxpayers instead of tax burdens," Sipes said.
At one point, while trying to drum up media interest for the event, Sipes jokingly said the 25,000th bracelet wearer would be receiving an Amana refrigerator with a blue ribbon tied around it.