At Jessup, teens hear tough talk on roads best not taken

The Baltimore Sun

The women in the pink shirts were inmates, some serving time for murder.

The girls in the street clothes were middle school students, on track to join the women wearing pink.

They gathered Thursday in a gym at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup to make sure that doesn't happen. Cops haven't yet slapped handcuffs on the 32 young teens in mentoring programs sponsored by the Baltimore mayor's office and identified because of their falling grades, poor attention and bad attitudes. But they're close.

In small groups, the inmates talked to the kids, trying to get them to tell their stories. What do they like about themselves? What makes them angry? What makes them lash out? They also told their own sad and tortuous histories, about the crimes that put them in Jessup and the children waiting for them on the outside.

One 13-year-old girl came off a bit too smug, and the inmates - part of a group called Prisoners United Sharing Hope - gave her a stern lashing.

"You have such a bad attitude for a pretty young lady," said Flotania Green, 34, who is serving eight years on two gun convictions and was a member of the Bloods gang.

The girl said her brothers were in gangs but she doesn't get involved. "I'm not interested," she said.

Green didn't buy it.

"You need to get a handle on that and change. I see me in you, and I don't want you to end up like me."

The program is in its second year and is the first in the state targeting young girls. On Saturday, the inmates will meet a more hardened set - young female offenders already locked up in Washington.

There are success stories - one student went from visiting Jessup to living in Europe as part of an exchange program (the inmates raised money for her trip, and on Thursday they gave money they raised for training guide dogs). There are heartbreaking stories - one girl's father had lied to her and told her that her mother was dead, only to have her come face-to-face with the woman behind bars on a visit last year, prompting an angry exchange that ended in a tearful reunion.

The warden, Brenda Shell-Eleazer, shared those anecdotes with me, noting that she expects at least one or two of the students who go through the program will someday end up in her prison as inmates. But what is most shocking are the troubles these kids live through and often try to hide.

Denise Parker, director of mentoring and special projects for the Baltimore mayor's office, had brought these kids here, most through a group called Young Women in Action. She told me that three times in the past year, prison officials have had to call child protective services because the young girls - unafraid to tell inmates what they're afraid to tell counselors - said they had been beaten or molested.

That was one group of Baltimore kids. In Baltimore on Thursday, Mayor Sheila Dixon met with another group, ones who have made it, and handed out awards as part of Youth Violence Prevention Week.

"The young people we honor today are shining examples that despite life's obstacles, people can transform their lives for the better," she told them.

Two distinct groups of children from the same city. One gets awards from the mayor; the other is challenged by inmates locked in a prison. It would be nice to see the young girls who were in Jessup on Thursday at City Hall on this day next year.

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