Inmate program teaches peaceful solutions Antidote to Violence

April 03, 1994|By Patrick A. McGuire | Patrick A. McGuire,Sun Staff Writer

Cliff Footes was just a 10-year-old kid in Bowie the day a man put a package of heroin into his hand and a pistol into his belt. Walk to that waiting car down at the corner, he told the boy, hand the dope through the window, bring back the money.

"But you keep one hand on your pistol," warned the man. "If they pull that package out of your hand, you shoot and you run."

Dutifully, the kid walked to the car. Why wouldn't he? The man who'd given him the heroin was his brother-in-law.

When he reached the car, somebody inside started to grab for the heroin. The 10-year-old drew his gun and fired blindly through the window, even as he and the car raced off in different directions. The last he saw it, the car was plunging down an embankment.

"I was brought up in a world of violence," says Footes softly, almost shyly, in the shadow of blackened bars at the 19th-century Maryland House of Correction in Jessup.

It is here he serves a life sentence -- not for that crime but for other acts committed in the violent years after that day in Bowie more than 30 years ago. "I seen the older guys. I wanted to be just like them. I didn't care about nothin'. I would shoot you just as soon as look at you."

And so it went until three years ago when an older, harder Footes, long since imprisoned for life on a multiple-felony kidnapping charge, bumped into a rival from one of those Bowie gangs. "My first thought," he admits, "was to go find me a knife."

But another inmate got to him first, telling him about a group of prisoners who had discovered other ways to deal with violent feelings. Curiously, Footes felt relief.

"Most guys want to get away from the violence," he says.

Footes' dark hair is done up neatly in stylish braids. Behind him in the Artists Club room at the prison hang several of his paintings, stunning portraits of faces etched, like his, with pain. "Guys are really afraid, and that's why a lot of the stabbings go on. But when you see guys changing from their old ways, you think, 'If he can do it, I can do it.' "

Footes is seated in the Activity Area of the 130-year-old prison, whose reputation for violence is aptly summed up in its nickname: The Cut. With him are four other inmates, all of them members of the self-styled Management Council in the Alternatives to Violence Program, known as AVP.

Run by prisoners, it has, since 1989, so successfully deprogrammed more than 90 hardened prisoners -- many convicted murderers -- from previously violent lifestyles, that none since has been charged with even the slightest prison-rules infraction.

Meanwhile, teachers, principals, middle-school kids, college students, even police officers and judges have made their way to the House of Correction to learn the secrets of a program capable of changing someone like Cliff Footes.

They include Baltimore County police officer Kevin Scott, who works almost exclusively with troubled kids out of the Woodlawn precinct. After attending a recent prisoner-run AVP seminar at the Cut, he and local high-school officials began incorporating ideas from the inmates into a program aimed at heading off student violence.

"Kids can really learn from this," says Officer Scott, "coming as it does from inmates who have been where kids are and who know where kids are heading if they don't get help. It makes a kid think, 'How can I handle a situation differently?' Right now we deal with problems after they occur as opposed to helping kids find solutions."

Another supporter of AVP is Richard Lanham, the tough former chief of the Baltimore City homicide squad and now Commissioner of Corrections.

"It's an important program for the management and safety of an institution," says Mr. Lanham, who has spoken at AVP seminars, "but also [for] the future, when an inmate gets released. We need to attempt to intercede and give them a better method of resolving problems without violence."

Rooted in the non-violent theories of Gandhi and introduced to American prisons in the 1960s by a group of Quakers, AVP goes beyond the popular conflict-resolution strategies cropping up in schools and corporations.

Dealing with emotions

"Conflict resolution tells two people how to get along," says Dennis Wise, another member of the management council. "But the most important part of AVP is that it helps me deal with fear, anger or rage," adds Wise, who is serving a life sentence for murder. "It tells me how to get along with myself."

A third inmate management-council member, Nadim Page, who is also under a life sentence for murder, says that "at one time if someone did something to me I got emotional to the point I would resort to violence. I just reacted. There's a great deal of people in here like that. AVP teaches you how to think before you react."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.