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For Repeat Offenders, Life on the Outside is Fraught With Uncertainty

By Sarah Schaffer
Capital News Service
Wednesday, April 30, 2003

BALTIMORE - Life in a prison cell doesn't bother Terrell Peacock.

Jaded by years of drug addiction and stints in and out of jail, the west Baltimore native is not fazed by the tough conditions of a state cell.

But when confronted with a life "outside the fence" and the uncertain prospects that come with release, Peacock gets edgy and fear creeps into the eyes of the long-time criminal.

"I want to get a job. I want to go to school and do the right thing, but I don't know what I am going to do," said the former drug-dealer. "Life can deal you the short end of the stick."

Peacock is serving time for trespassing, a reduction from the burglary charge he originally faced this time around. He has served time before for theft and burglary charges, all drug-related.

He has played so much with the manila envelope that carries his legal papers -- and his potential release date -- that it has turned soft and velvety. The 22-year-old is not sure if he can handle the responsibilities and pressures of daily life, from working a steady job to dealing with the stigma of a criminal record.

"Just putting me in prison is not helping anything," he said.

Peacock wants treatment; he wants therapy. Without that, he wonders if his old habits will resurface and place him back behind bars.

And he's not alone. Many local social service organizations are also worried about the revolving door of the state's prison system.

They have good reason to be concerned.

The Revolving Door

An Urban Institute analysis of Maryland's prison population found that 70 percent of the 9,448 prisoners released in 2001 had been in prison at least once before, with some having served four or more previous sentences.

Recent data from the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services shows that more than half the prisoners released in Maryland commit new crimes and return to the system within three years of release. The state does not count parole violations, which would push recidivism numbers even higher, only the commission of new crimes.

To combat recidivism, the state is working with organizations like Baltimore-based Goodwill Industries of the Chesapeake to offer life skills classes inside the prison walls.

Goodwill spokesman Phil Holmes said the recidivism rate in Maryland shows that "the period of incarceration was just to get the person out of circulation."

"Nothing is done to change the person's behavior," he said.

Those who work with inmates agree.

Without those services, inmates "have a tendency to continue" the conduct that landed them in prison in the first place, said Yusef El, a Goodwill instructor who provides guidance to Peacock and a handful of others at the Metropolitan Transitional Center in Baltimore City.

"They give up before they even get started. It's easier to go back" to that lifestyle than to face the challenges ahead, said El, an ex-offender himself. He knows it is hard to stop the cycle of drug abuse and criminal behavior after being caught up in it for years.

His program, Supporting Ex-Offenders in Employment Training and Transitional Services, aims to reverse this phenomenon, drilling inmates in interviewing skills, teaching business etiquette, working on resumes and identifying marketable skills.

The program also gives participants a chance to vent their frustrations and concerns, which is valuable to Peacock, who said feelings of anger, depression and fear make him feel like a volcano that's ready to erupt.

"I hold a lot of my feelings in, especially in here, because it's hard to distinguish friend from foe," he said of life inside.

But when Peacock talks about an upcoming trial that may keep him in prison longer than he first thought, he appears momentarily relieved.

"Peacock is only 22 and he feels more comfortable here than he does on the street," El said.

Crafting a Plan

El devotes extra time to Peacock, who he said appears to be making a real effort to figure things out and prepare himself for life on the outside. The graying instructor counsels the young inmate.

"You have to formulate some sort of plan before you hit the street," El told Peacock. "You've gotta know what you want to become . . . you have to be in the process of becoming, and you've gotta constantly stay in that process."

A classmate tells Peacock that he cannot "go out there with the same jailhouse mentality."

Peacock's mood changes from week to week, but he appears to be more positive about life on the outside as the program progresses. He admits he has a long way to go, but said that now, at least, he can see a different path and is ready to take it -- even if it will be hard.

"I think it's excellent. I love it," Peacock said of the program, smiling brightly.

Photographs and special report banner and design by Adam Newman / Maryland Newsline. Print stories edited by Steve Crane. Web package edited by Chris Harvey.


Copyright 2003 University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism

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In This Series:

With Little Preparation Inside Prison, Inmates Face a Shock on the Outside

For Repeat Offenders, Life on the Outside is Fraught with Uncertainty

For Prisoners, Preparing for Life Outside Can Mean Shedding Their Old Selves

A Year in Prison Brings a Promise to Begin Life Anew