New jail tries to turn around drunken drivers

January 15, 1995|By Robert Guy Matthews | Robert Guy Matthews,Sun Staff Writer

Drinking got Andrew Aker into jail, and he kept drinking until he got to the doorway.

Gripping a half-empty can of beer, he stumbled toward the entrance of Baltimore County's new jail for drunken drivers, steadied himself on a bush and belted back the rest. With a show of reluctance, he tossed the can away -- along with his freedom for the next 28 days.

"I had 12 beers today, six before court and six before coming here," Mr. Aker said as he prepared to check into the facility, which is designed to punish offenders with alcohol or drug problems, get them off the roads and offer them treatment. "Funny, I had to drink to get the nerve to come."

The Baltimore County DWI facility, which opened Sept. 20, is the second of its kind in the state and the only one in the Baltimore area. High hopes for its success have diminished somewhat as administrators have found that filling the 100-bed facility is harder than they expected.

So far, fewer than 65 people have gone through the program. Mr. Aker was the 40th.

After a District Court conviction for roughing up a friend in a fight over a half-empty bottle of vodka, Mr. Aker, an unemployed Dundalk factory worker, chose to go to the DWI (Driving While Intoxicated) facility instead of spending 60 days in the county Detention Center.

Some of the inmates are drunken drivers. Others, such as Mr. Aker, got into other kinds of alcohol-related trouble. Still others abuse drugs and drink. They're all are required to pay for their treatment, based on their income.

There are no bars to keep inmates inside the renovated, two-story building in a corner of the state's Rosewood Center in Owings Mills. But there is an understanding that if the rules aren't followed, it's back to the judge -- and most likely to jail.

Inmates may work

Inmates are in bed by 11 p.m. and up by 6 a.m. Two hours of lectures, counseling and group sessions are scheduled every night. Cleaning and other chores are done throughout the day. Inmates who have jobs may work -- but they have only enough free time outside to get to their jobs and back. When they return, they're searched and take a breath analysis test for alcohol.

On the night Mr. Aker arrived, his blood alcohol level registered .117 percent -- enough to make him legally drunk.

"I have to keep telling myself that this is better than jail," Mr. Aker, 38, said as he joined that night's group therapy session.

Already waiting were 14 other alcohol and drug abusers -- all vowing that the last time was the last time.

The youngest was 24 and the oldest 53. They were mostly white, with blue collar backgrounds. They had lost marriages, custody of their children, jobs, money and most important, dignity.

Some were willing to speak on the record, while others agreed to talk only on condition of anonymity.

Mark Richey, 33, was in because he would pick up one beer and keep drinking until he passed out.

Another inmate, a 32-year-old carpenter, had three drunken driving convictions but said his real problem was crack cocaine.

A salesman in his 30s from Columbia was afraid of going to prison. He had checked himself in two weeks earlier, hoping to impress the judge who would sentence him for slamming into the rear of another car while drunk -- his fourth DWI conviction.

Auto-glass installer Derek Maynard, 24, has been through the 28-day program before. Within a week of being released, he inhaled three lines of cocaine.

All the participants watched a videotaped lecture on the excuses alcoholics use to convince themselves that they're not alcoholics. The tape was discussed during the night's session, as the inmates tried to help one another past emotional and psychological stumbling blacks.

Wearing rundown tennis shoes and a red sweat shirt, Mr. Maynard arrived late, stirring a hot drink. He had been outside on one of the four daily smoking breaks. Almost everyone smokes.

L The group jumped on him for being late, for breaking a rule.

"I was told I had three minutes," he shot back defensively. The rest of the group stared at him.

Breaking the rules is why Mr. Maynard is back in the program. He never attended the required drug counseling meetings after his first release. Instead, he went to the house of a friend who had cocaine out on the table.

"I couldn't resist," he said.

Now his life is back where he wants it, he said. His Essex employer has agreed to give him his job back when he gets out.

"I'm sorry," he told the group, apologizing for his tardiness.

Mr. Richey, who sat next to Mr. Aker, was the most talkative inmate that night, his last at the facility. He said he wanted the others -- particularly the newcomers -- to see that they could make it.

For 16 years, Mr. Richey drank. Five years ago his drinking became a serious problem. He racked up three drunken driving convictions and he said he had spent close to $10,000 on fines and lawyers.

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