When 18-year-old Corey Winfield stood before the court two years ago for sentencing on a first-degree murder charge, the judge gave him a break...
Well, sort of.
"She looked at me and said, 'All I have to say to you son is, I don't know what is wrong with our youth. I'm going to sentence you to 185 years, but I'll suspend 100 years because I feel you can be rehabilitated.'" That "break" would allow Winfield to get out of the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup when he is 103. But Winfield, now 20, doesn't want to see anyone else make the same mistakes he did. He has dedicated his time to teaching juvenile offenders about prison life through a program started by the Jessup Jaycees.
Winfield said one 17-year-old boy told him he didn't know if he could stay away from crime because he liked "nice things."
"I like nice things too," Winfield told him. "But you can't have nice things in here. This is like the land of the dead. You leave nice things behind." It didn't take long for the stark image of prison to sink in, the boy immediately told his counselor: "Man, I'm going to make something of myself."
That type of success is not unique to the program. About 92 percent of all juveniles who go through it do not come back to prison. It is a figure that had the inmate/counselors bragging Saturday night during a seminar aimed at showing off what the program can do and how it works.
Conducted inside the activity center of the prison, the seminar attracted Jaycees representatives from all over Anne Arundel and many officials from Baltimore city and county, including the State's Attorney's office, who works with the inmates and brings the juveniles in.
It is not modeled after the well-known "Scared Straight" program, where inmates try to shock juvenile offenders to scare them out of a life of crime. Instead, the counselors take 15 kids on a tour of the prison once and then have group and individual counseling sessions.
The counselors do not preach right and wrong to the offenders, but try to paint a realistic picture of what consequences of crime can be. They leave it up to the kids whether prison is an option they wish to choose.
"Hey, this is no joke," said Maurice Cook, who is serving 30 years on a robbery charge. "This is real. We show the kids how it is. If they want to come here, then I don't know them because they have been warned."
During the counseling sessions, the juvenile must recite what he is charged with and go over the circumstances of his arrest. Right then the counselors stress that the kids must take responsibility for their actions.
To demonstrate, one of the inmates re-enacted a counseling session in which one of the kids said he "just picked up a bag" not knowing there was drugs inside. The counselors didn't buy the explanation. "You had nothing to do but go to that street corner and get a brown bag," one counselor said. "Tell us the truth, you knew what was in that bag."
It can be hard work, but the inmates don't mind at all. "We may be incarcerated," said inmate Johnny Jones, director of the student visitation and counseling program. "But we feel we owe something to society. We have to give something back."
But reaching some of the youngsters is not always easy.
"They believe they are invincible," said Stuart Simms, State's Attorney for Baltimore. "They believe they are invincible to bullets. They have taken their fate and cast it to the wind."
Simms said that last year, there were 262 homicides in Baltimore and at the current pace, there could be more than 300 killings this year. "And I don't have to tell you what is happening in the District of Columbia and Prince Georges County."
The counselors said the biggest problem is that too many kids are growing up without fathers. "We are not responsible to our youth," said Cook. "There are kids killing kids, kids having kids and we are asking them to be adults."
"It is time to stop being the talkers," said inmate Willie Walker. "It is time to listen because our children are crying out to be heard."
Inmate Moses Fisher said it may be necessary to impose tougher prison sentences, but also warned that many kids perceive a dual justice system.
"He sees John go out and buy a kilo of dope and gets two years. So he goes out and buys a kilo of dope. But if John got life in prison, maybe he will see it is no joke and won't do it. But then he sees a police officer break the law and doesn't go to jail and he wonders if there are two sets of laws."
Pete Kambouris offered himself as an example of what people can do after prison. He didn't have the Jaycees program in 1966, when his home was the prison in Jessup. But he said he learned how to read while in jail and when he got out, became a counselor with the Baltimore Police Department.
And just two weeks ago, he signed on with the governor as a project administrator with the Office of Justice Assistance. He will be working at setting up and expanding more Jaycees programs.
"It is amazing where people can go," he said.