Inmates learn some ways to control their anger

September 30, 1994|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,Sun Staff Writer

The signs are there: Sweating brow, racing pulse, fists pounding on the table. Angry, pointed words reverberating off the graffiti-covered walls like dangerous weapons.

This is "anger control" class for some of the most troublesome inmates at the Baltimore City Detention Center. But Shelton Alexander is practically out of control, if you go by the signals that he and seven other prisoners in the jail's segregation unit are being taught to recognize.

Using role-playing exercises, discussion questions and videotapes depicting confrontations, social workers at the former City Jail are trying to calm the tempers of accused murderers, robbers and drug dealers in just six hourlong sessions.

The goal is to reduce violence among the jail's 3,000 inmates -- the stabbings, fistfights and beatings that can flare up from an askance look, a long wait for chow, or a dispute over whose turn it is to use the phone.

Mr. Alexander is one of those who has done time before. He said he had been in the jail before on a robbery charge and spent 10 years in the Maryland Penitentiary. He was awaiting trial on a drug-possession charge when he attended the anger-control class.

To Mr. Alexander, jail conditions themselves are enough to make anybody angry. He had been confined to a cell 23 hours a day since he had words with a correctional officer over having to sleep on a hard floor.

He said the administrators who think the anger program is a good idea -- yet crowd prisoners into gymnasiums and dayrooms, allow cacophony all night long, and provide child-size meals -- are the ones who need it most.

"They put you right on the edge," he shouted in the 20- by 30-foot room that inmates are normally allowed to use for "recreation."

"It's not like we're asking for a hacksaw blade to get out. We ain't got no anger problems. Anger ain't got nothing to do with it."

Social worker Harry Conyers, one of the program instructors, listened to this tirade with a skittish smile. He interrupted Mr. Alexander from time to time to make sure of one thing: "You know not to hit the messenger, right?"

Working in part from an American Correctional Association program called "Cage Your Rage," Baltimore officials began the training several months ago with their most troublesome prisoners, those on L-section. Two other groups have started since then -- one for juveniles charged with adult crimes and one for women prisoners -- with an eye to expanding to other sections of the jail.

LaMont W. Flanagan, Maryland's commissioner of pretrial detention and services, said inmates frequently injure each other in the jail, though he did not have statistics.

"A lot of these guys don't know anything between mellow and explosive," said James B. Jacobs, a professor at the New York University School of Law who has done research on prison and jail culture. "It's sort of ironic to take people with these weak personal controls and put them in this frustrating environment."

Between 300 and 400 institutions across the country have purchased materials for the anger-control program, which was developed by a prison psychologist in Canada, said Linda Munday, assistant director of marketing for the American Correctional Association's publications division. The course revolves around questions that explore the origins of angry feelings. For example, inmates are asked to recall whether there was a consistently angry person in the home where they grew up, consider how controlling anger might make their lives different, and to recall how they and their friends were punished as children.

But the association has no information on whether the classes reduce violence in institutions or help prisoners avoid crime, Ms. Munday said.

Mr. Alexander's outpouring came after what had been a quiet hour of reviewing how to keep angry feelings from surging into violence.

"Most things you can deal with right away. Express yourself and move on," said social worker and instructor Sandora Cathcart.

The segregation inmates watched a videotape of a dramatized encounter in which a prisoner, enraged because he thought officials were hiding a long-awaited letter from his wife, dumped out a box of mail. A calm-voiced narrator told the inmates watching to look for the signs that the actor was angry: raised voice, clenched fists, bouncing on the balls of his feet.

Instead, they smirked and noted that the prisoner wasn't hit or kicked by the inmate he clashed with, or manhandled by the correctional officer who eventually ordered him back to his cell.

Prisoner Eddie Clinton, 28, looked down at a work sheet crowded with a torrent of words, all in capital letters -- his answers to a question about what makes him want to lash out.

"Somebody calls me ugly -- that burns me up," he said. "Then I say: Check this out. He ain't even on my level."

Some prisoners said afterward that the program was helping. Those who complete the course get a certificate of achievement, but no extra privileges in the jail.

"I have a slight attitude problem," admitted Zandy Moore, 34, who was awaiting trial on a first-degree murder charge. "Sure, it helps to get a lot off my chest."

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