As the teen-age boys entered a room in the Maryland Penitentiary, they were met by three convicted murderers serving sentences ranging from life plus 20 years to two life terms.
The boys had come to the prison to meet 30 inmates who are part of the Project Turnaround program. The teen-agers thought they had been invited to chat with the inmates. But once the session began, the inmates did all the talking, and their message about prison life was as brutal as the crimes that sent them to jail.
"The disrespect stops here. You're in our house now," said John Woodland, 36, who is serving two life sentences for two killings. "You are our past and we are your future. You're going to end up coming to the Maryland Pen and suffer like we've suffered."
Noticing that some of the youths were restless and inattentive, Gregory Chapman, who has served 13 years of a life sentence, issued a warning.
"I'm a hard-core guy. If I see a knucklehead, I'm going to straighten him out," Chapman told them.
The boys are between 12 and 17 years old and have behavioral problems. Project Turnaround was created to inform troubled youngsters about the horrors of prison life.
The inmates call the program "Project T." Its counselors have been convicted of crimes such as murder and armed robbery. All are serving lengthy sentences -- some will spend the rest of their lives behind the Pen's thick granite walls with no chance for parole.
All of the sessions with the youths are held within the walls of the maximum-security prison in East Baltimore.
"It's all about making bad decisions," said Anthony Trusty, 36, who is serving a life-plus-10-year sentence. "If you make bad decisions, bad things happen. How I got in here was because of bad decisions. All of y'all ain't going to make it in here. I know it. You won't."
Trusty's remarks to the boys, like those of the other inmates, rang of sincerity. He offered a blunt assessment of his life, which was ruined by crime.
"I stole cigarettes from my mother when I was very young. Then I started drinking wine coolers. That was a bad decision. Everything my buddies did, I did. That's peer pressure," he said, adding:
"I took so much out of the community and did so much wrong, it's time I gave something back to them. Ain't none of my buddies told me to go to the library and study. None of them. We keep thinking we're going to be like Al Capone or Michael Jordan, when we should try to be more like Kurt Schmoke or Thurgood Marshall."
Officer D. Nelson, volunteer activity coordinator at the penitentiary and the contact for youths who participate in Project T, said the inmates work hard to prepare for the youths' visits.
"It gives them a chance to play a positive leadership role," Officer Nelson said. "They're pretty much effective in working with youths. And if this isn't a deterrent, the child is pretty much in trouble."
Unlike "Scared Straight" programs that have stirred controversy in other states, Project Turnaround is not based on intimidation or brutality. Project Turnaround's counselors don't threaten the youths or physically harm them.
Warren Rymes, 35, who is serving a life sentence for murder and has been with the program for three years, said the counselors try to build a rapport with the youths.
"This is not a 'Scared Straight' type of program. We don't want any association with that. Children are not criminals but victims of ignorance," said Rymes.
"Life in the Pen is not a rite of passage for black males. This is not a black man's university," Rymes said. "They don't want to be a part of this environment."
The inmates use role-playing and psychodrama to reach the youngsters.
"We don't get anything done with grabbing," Woodland said. "We attack the mind. We challenge the mind."
Earl El-Amin, director of the Urban League's Youth Diversion Project, has taken more than 120 boys to sessions at the penitentiary.
"For some kids, it has a horrifying impact," he said, adding: "It exposes them to another side of the world. The children are exposed to the prison environment through good counseling skills."
Because of the program's success, a similar one is planned for outside the prison.
"We try to stress to kids that we don't have all of the answers to all of the questions," said Donald Braxton, 27, who has served 11 years of a life sentence for a murder conviction. "But I'm trying to prevent a black kid from going through what I go through daily."
Although all of the Project T inmates are serving heavy sentences, they still are concerned about the plight of the youths on the mean streets outside.
"We care about the youths because they're the future," said John Cowan, who has served 17 years of a life-plus-70-year sentence, adding: "We have family out there."