Volunteers throw family party for prison inmates

December 11, 1992|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,Staff Writer

It's not every prison that throws a holiday bash and invites th family.

But that's exactly what Maryland State Penitentiary inmate Curtis Monroe-Bey was preparing for Monday as he nimbly wrapped dozens of children's gifts -- everything from ant farms to stuffed zebras.

He was joined in the damp auditorium of the decrepit Baltimore facility by a dozen other inmates. They chattered and worked with about 10 volunteers preparing gifts for 1,200 children expected to attend the prison's "Family Day" event, which runs today through Sunday.

"There are no walls between them. Fathers can romp around on the floor with their kids, hug them, kiss them -- things most people just take for granted," said Robert Abbey as he surveyed a frenzy of activity as inmates and volunteers prepared.

Mr. Abbey is the Maryland-Delaware area director for Prison Fellowship, a Columbia-based organization that collects new toys and clothes so inmates at the Maryland Penitentiary and Maryland House of Correction in Jessup can give gifts to their children.

Prison Fellowship, a national Christian jail ministry founded by Chuck Colson, a former Nixon administration staff member jailed for his role in the Watergate scandal, launches its drive for donations long before the holidays. The organization gets volunteers to come to the Pen to assist with wrapping the gifts.

Appeals for gift donations are sent July 15 to about 225 churches and numerous individuals in Maryland, Delaware and West Virginia for what Prison Fellowship calls its "Angel Tree Program."

Before that, applications are distributed to prisoners who want their children to receive gifts. Inmates are asked the children's names, ages and other information.

After the applications are returned to Prison Fellowship's office in the Wilde Lake Village Center, a computer matches ZIP codes of the children's home addresses with fellowship volunteers who live nearby. In 1987, the first year of the Angel Tree Program, Prison Fellowship distributed gifts to 800 children at the Maryland Penitentiary. An estimated 1,200 children will receive gifts there this year. Another 400 children are expected to receive gifts next weekend at the Maryland House of Correction.

Last weekend, the organization trucked in 90 30-gallon trash bags packed with toys and other donations, including some two-dozen basketballs and footballs.

Mr. Abbey, a teaching elder at the Second Congregational Church in East Baltimore, credits penitentiary Warden Sewell Smith with being open-minded enough to admit the Angel Tree Program to the prison.

"This is a security nightmare for him. He's allowing hundreds of people to come into a maximum-security prison. He's really sticking his neck out for this to work," Mr. Abbey said.

Monroe-Bey, 35, a Pen inmate for 10 years, said the program provides a significant event for the children and inmates.

"The eyes tell the whole story," he said. "You should see the way these kids' eyes are full of happiness when they come in and get a gift and then get to open it with their father or grandfather."

Because the penitentiary has inmates of Islamic and other non-Christian faiths, the event isn't touted as a Christmas celebration. The theme is family unity.

Celestine Aniunoh, vice-president of the Inmate Advisory Committee, which assists with organizing the three-day program, says the event can inspire some inmates to change their outlook.

"The joy and energy that flows around here while the children and families are together is amazing. When a guy is locked up in here he is seen by his children and family as more or less helpless. But when the father is able to give his child a gift and to hold and play with the child he is not helpless in the child's eyes. He is the father again."

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