Straight talk about avoiding a crooked life

The Baltimore Sun

You get strip-searched and shackled. You can't choose what to eat, when to turn out the lights, how to dress. You risk being raped, stabbed or beaten. And you might have to languish in hellish conditions for years or decades.

This, as a dozen teens and younger children heard yesterday in Annapolis, is the harsh reality of life at the Eastern Correctional Institution outside Salisbury - Maryland's largest prison with 3,200 inmates.

"I think you guys are a bunch of good kids," said Capt. Walter Holmes, a burly correctional officer. "But if you start messing up, you're coming here."

Numerous photos illustrated why he thought they should avoid that outcome: tiny jail cells, coiled razor wire, heavily armed tower guards.

Holmes and two prison colleagues visited the community center at the Eastport Terrace public housing project to drive home the need for youth to make smart decisions before they land behind bars. They call it CHOICES - Children Having Obstacles Involving Choices Eventually Succeed.

Holmes and Capt. Kevin King launched the program in 2005 and have presented it on their off-hours some 30 times at churches, schools and community centers up and down the Delmarva peninsula.

Yesterday was their first session west of the Chesapeake Bay, thanks to an invitation from an Annapolis youth advocate named Raynaldo Brown.

While Holmes said it's not a "scared straight" approach, he certainly hopes participants leave with a healthy fear of prison. "We do want to wake them up, so to speak," he said before yesterday's event. But, he added, "We don't want to scare them to the point they don't want to listen."

Two grandmothers were in attendance along with 11 boys and a 6-year-old girl.

Devera Pounds brought her two grandsons so they could hear the message. Three of their older brothers have been locked up; one, who's 17, just got out of juvenile detention for a drug charge.

And their uncle, 15-year-old Malachi McFarland - Pounds' son - is serving a 10-year sentence for shooting a 20-year-old man in late April. McFarland, who was charged as an adult, told police he felt threatened by his victim.

As the two boys and her 10-year-old grand-nephew sat beside her on metal chairs, Pounds said: "I'm hoping they see a picture, see one word that may click in those teeny brains of theirs - 'Oh, man, this one choice may leave me locked up the rest of my life.' "

Choking up, she said the boys need to realize that "once they close the doors of the cell, there's no looking back. There's nothing like your freedom." She had tried to drill that into her son, even taking him to a scared straight-style program.

Of her two grandsons, only 12-year-old Jacquan Smith seemed pleased to be there. "I think it's going to help me stay out of trouble," he said. He said he understood that jail is "bad" and that "bad people go there."

But 15-year-old Lamont Crowner slumped in his chair and scowled. "I don't want to be here," he said.

Crowner is just the type of kid Holmes hopes to reach. After being caught trying to break into a car, the boy was sent for counseling. He can still make wise choices to avoid more serious run-ins with the law.

At one point, Holmes held a pair of handcuffs in one hand and a science textbook in the other, explaining that focusing on schoolwork can open doors of opportunity, and committing crimes can slam them shut.

Among the many statistics included in a detailed slide show were two with particular relevance for yesterday's African-American audience: 74 percent of Maryland's prison inmates are black; and 1,073 inmates statewide are 20 or younger.

The danger of gangs was a recurring theme.

Holmes, King and case management specialist Lynnel Copes-Parker urged the group not to be swayed by the way some rap stars glamorize the violence-saturated gangster lifestyle.

One boy suggested that some teens join gangs because they want respect.

Sensing a teachable moment, Holmes asked the group, "What is respect?"

"Money and power," replied 12-year-old Jo'shaun Bolden.

"Hitler had money and power," Holmes said. "I don't respect him."

Jo'shaun said he had never heard of Hitler. But a few minutes later, after stepping into the lobby, he described what he took from the overall discussion.

"Not to hang with the wrong crowd," he said. "You might get involved in bad things, you'll go to jail."

Though it is hard to gauge the program's impact, Holmes has anecdotal evidence that it has made a difference. He gives out his phone number after these presentations and often receives follow-up calls from parents and youths.

Earlier this year he heard from a boy who had attended a session on Virginia's Eastern Shore and was thinking of joining the Bloods gang. Holmes drove to Virginia and met with him, reminding him that he's at a crossroads and must decide which way to go.

"Today," Holmes said, "he's still doing well."

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