Preparing for Life Outside Can Mean Shedding Their Old Selves
Capital News Service
Wednesday, April 30, 2003
BALTIMORE - It was 9:15
a.m. on an icy February morning
when Yusef El, graying, dreadlocked and soft-spoken,
told a small group of disinterested inmates that they were about to begin the
process of becoming "somebody else."
who has the skills needed to cope with life "outside the fence."
inmates who sat in the small classroom in "A" Building at the Metropolitan
Transitional Center in Baltimore City seemed unconvinced. They slouched
sleepily into the cold metal chairs, unaffected by the noise echoing from the
the participants are repeat offenders. Most have substance abuse problems and
did not finish high school.
seemed skeptical that the seven-week program, Supporting Ex- Offenders in
Employment Training and Transitional Services, or SEETTS, would make a
difference in their lives.
skeptical of all is Kenneth Smallwood, a stout and husky 38-year-old who had
spent the last 20 years of his life in and out of the prison system. This was
his fifth time in "the joint."
real pain, mentally and physically," Smallwood said. And doing time "on the
box" -- a phrase he used for a term of house arrest -- is just as hard as jail
time, he said.
hard to re-integrate into the community after previous prison terms. But it's
optimistic, however, assuring the inmates that they could make a change if they
desired. He told them they could get and keep a good job if they focused on
building fundamental life-skills.
community will only give them a chance if it's clear they can handle it, he
prepared for release, then "all you're asking for is an opportunity to prove
yourself," El told the group.
ex-offender himself, El knows what it's like to be in their shoes. He has dealt
with the stigma of a prison record and the physical torture of drug abuse. He
knows that the initial challenge for many of these inmates comes from within.
"A lot of
these guys need more than a job. They have to become somebody else," El said.
to stop" living on the margins of society when that's all you've been doing for
years on end, he said. "You need to know how to do that and how to make
run by Goodwill Industries of the Chesapeake, aims to teach them how.
program, started in January 2001, is the only one of its kind offered inside
the walls of the Metropolitan Transitional Center to help inmates prepare for
life outside. So far it has served just over 200 inmates, mostly young drug
offenders who are nearing the ends of their sentences, prepare for life on the
course, inmates meet for a few hours each week. They practice interviewing
skills, learn about business etiquette, work on their resumes and identify
their most marketable skills.
meetings also let participants vent their frustrations and concerns. Inmates
can act as each other's harshest critics or biggest supporters.
beginning of the third session, in the midst of a lesson about business attire,
Smallwood had a meltdown.
I don't understand," he said loudly, arching his broad back.
perked up and tension grew in the room as Smallwood told the story of the last
time he was outside the fence. He was fired from a warehouse job after his
criminal past was revealed by a background check.
"I was one
of the best workers in there. I was confused as to why an employer would do
that to me," he said, his brow furrowed in frustration.
wanted to go back and sell drugs," he added.
when you have to pull yourself together," El said, as Smallwood hung his head.
tried to boost the dejected inmate's ego, the classroom bubbled with chatter
from other prisoners with similar experiences. They talked about harsh parole
officers and the challenge of staying in compliance.
the POs -- parole officers -- are too strict and will arbitrarily "violate"
inmates who are otherwise trying to make good. One said other inmates at the
center complained they were back in prison simply because they could not take
time off from work to make a scheduled appointment with their parole officers.
a two-time parole violator, mumbled, "I just want to get off of parole." The
others shook their heads, empathetic to his plight.
usually quiet classmate, Paul Banks, fired back at the others.
mindful" of parole officers and their rules, the 21-year old said sternly.
"Don't lean on these types of excuses."
erupted in frustrated rants.
Peacock, 22, on his third stint in the prison, acknowledged that "having to
choose between a job and a PO is tough." But keeping your freedom is more
important than any job, he told the group.
All of the
that, a new conversation began, providing another vent session for nearly every
inmate in the room.
free-flowing dialogue, El believes, is perfect for the class, and he frequently
harnesses the energy created by the debates. After the edgy banter settled, a
lesson on interviewing skills began.
several weeks of meetings, many in the class were developing plans for release.
a man full of doubts at first, is ready to start his life over again. And this
time, he said, nothing will keep him from attaining his goals.
On a balmy
April morning, he arrived early at the prison classroom, eager to join in the
last SEETTS class.
really trying to gather myself. I'm getting close to 40 years old. It's all
about staying focused, staying on track," he said.
recovering drug addict said he feels like he's "been sleepwalking through
time to wake up," he said.
of classes had softened Smallwood. But as he left the sun-lit classroom to
prepare for a GED preparation test, his resolve was firm.
stop breathing, I want something and now I'm gonna have it," he added, his
round cheeks thickly framing the makings of a smile.
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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