Cultivating their future

They renamed the old, scary Maryland Penitentiary a few years ago and changed its purpose. It's now called the Metropolitan Transition Center, a place where inmates go when they are in the last couple of years of prison time. Given its purpose and potential, it's probably one of the most important institutions in Baltimore - a crossroads where men who once caused so much trouble in their home communities either beat the devil or re-up.

Some inmates - the assistant warden thinks it's about a third of the 1,537 men housed there this week - remain trapped in the thug mentality that put them behind bars to begin with; they just do their time and mark the calendar.

But a significant number of others, usually older, try to shake their destructive ways and prepare for a successful return to free society. They take advantage of the educational and therapeutic services offered to them while in the center.

Or at least they think about it.

These days, you might see some of them planting pansies, spreading mulch or watering the new lawn out in the prison yard.

You might see them - ready for this? - sitting quietly on a wooden meditation bench, contemplating where they've been and where they're going.

They might even enter their thoughts in a journal that stays in a cubbyhole under the bench.

"This community garden restores my serenity with each passing day," an inmate named Robert Carpenter wrote in the journal shortly after inmates finished the first stage of a large landscaping project to convert the gnarly, gravelly prison yard into a vast, green meditation garden behind walls. "My mind creates dreams ... all will be fulfilled one special day."

"Nature gets stressful thoughts off my mind," another inmate wrote just a few days ago. "Planting, watering, growing my way back into society, so I can blossom and shine once again."

Hard to believe, but there it is - on the grounds of what state officials and historians consider the oldest continuously operating prison in the Western Hemisphere. Where once were prison factories, then a sprawling, sloping prison yard, inmates have graded, planted, watered and raked. They've built walkways with stone taken from the demolition of part of an old building.

They've made meditation steppingstones out of concrete and pieces of tile and shell. ("Watch Your Character, It Becomes Your Destiny," reads the inscription on one.)

The inmates have raked out sand and mulch, spread landscaping stone, constructed raised garden beds and built something that looks like a wishing well. (It might end up being a goldfish pond, according to Corrections Officer Richard Kelly Jr.) They built a beach volleyball court and horseshoe pits.

They did it all by hand.

The state says that this garden and one like it at the Western Correctional Institution in Cumberland are the first two prison meditation gardens in the United States. Created with support and funding from the Annapolis-based TKF Foundation and Baltimore's Parks and People, it will be officially opened at a ceremony today.

The transformed prison yard is a point of pride among the inmates who worked on the project - some of whom have since left the place - and the staff of the institution, from the correctional officers to the warden, Gary Hornbacker, and assistant warden, Carolyn Atkins.

Atkins had some of the men who worked on the project express in writing what the garden means to them, and yesterday I met most of them, dressed in standard prison gray and denim, in the shade of a wooden shed next to the walking track that rings the new lawn.

"I actually built my character and had a good learning experience," wrote Linwood "Woody" Kroger, 32, from Charles Village, due for release next summer.

"The horticulture program has given me an opportunity to pick up a lot of different skills that I can use when I get home," said Antonio Fowlkes, 27, due for release in September.

"It has given me a better outlook on gardening and landscape," wrote Raphael "Ray-Ray" Richardson, 27, who has three years to go on his sentence.

"It has given me peace of mind," wrote Sylvester Lewis, 41, from East Baltimore, due for release in 2009.

"The horticulture program gives me pride in the work I have done," wrote Tyrone Bryant, 26, from West Baltimore, due out next year. "I can go into a project and complete it like a job on the street. "

A lot of these men never had real jobs.

"I never did," said Wayne Gross, 41, from East Baltimore. "I never planted flowers. I feel good, being part of something like this."

The unofficial foreman on the project, Colin Freeman, and other inmates said they are likely to go into the landscaping business or horticulture when they earn release from the Department of Corrections.

"The horticulture program has helped me with job training, hands-on experience and good work ethics," wrote Ronnie Hopkins, 27, from South Baltimore, due for release next year.

"It's had a positive impact on me, and it could help others coming through this place find peace of mind," Freeman added.

The assistant warden hopes the opportunity to sit and meditate in slightly greener surroundings inside the big, old walls will help some inmates shake the thug-think. Some are hellbent on a return to street life, no matter the risks of violence and death. Others are in their thinking somewhere between the old ways and a desire for a better life. "They want to live," Atkins said. "They just don't know how yet."

Maybe a little time on a wooden bench, with flowers and grass growing nearby, will help them figure it out.

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