Inmates join war on Lyme disease Patuxent Institution prisoners build devices to help rid deer of ticks

January 19, 1998|By Dana Hedgpeth | Dana Hedgpeth,SUN STAFF

Behind the 15-foot-high barbed-wire fence at Patuxent Institution in Jessup, inmates are making weapons.

Weapons to fight the spread of Lyme disease, that is.

In the past month -- with $100,000 in funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture -- the inmates have built 100 metal feeding stations designed to attract deer and kill their ticks.

The project, which is said to be one of the largest undertaken by Maryland prisoners, is part of a $2 million experiment to deal with one of the fears accompanying the burgeoning suburban deer population -- the rising number of cases of Lyme disease, which can be transmitted by ticks.

About 30 stations were sent from Patuxent to the USDA research center in Beltsville last week. In February, USDA officials will pick another 70.

The stations will be placed in four tick-infested areas in the state.

Scientists are examining seven areas in Maryland as possible sites, including Gibson Island, Montgomery County, Upper Marlboro, Aberdeen Proving Ground, Patapsco Valley State Park, Beltsville Agricultural Research Center and River Hill in Howard County.

"It's a great combination for all," said Mat Pound, a USDA scientist who designed the feeding stations in Kerrville, Texas. "It teaches inmates sophisticated sheet metal skills, gives us a product and helps stop the spread of Lyme disease."

To the USDA, it comes down to economics -- having inmates do the work cuts the cost in half.

To get the first 100 stations built by private contractors cost $225,000. They have been installed at sites in the Northeast, including Lyme, Conn., where the disease was identified in 1976.

For the Patuxent project, the USDA bought 4 1/2 tons of sheet metal and a $3,500 spot welder.

For Maryland inmates, who are more accustomed to making license plates and wood-burning stoves or fixing broiler equipment, the project has a special appeal.

'They are concerned'

"Nobody thinks of prisoners as doing much. They are inmates, but they are concerned about the environment, and they are concerned about what's going on outside the fence," said John Hamsher, who heads the state's 38 vocational education programs in prisons.

Down a dark, concrete corridor, past the dingy dining hall and cells, in the basement of the former Diagnostic Center -- referred to as the "DC building" -- the shop room has been transformed into a small assembly line.

For almost seven hours a day, 15 Jessup inmates, including four women, work in pairs -- welding, cutting and pounding metal into an 85-pound, 4-foot-high contraption.

Eight get paid for their work -- between $1 and $1.30 per day. Seven get credit toward the 600 hours needed for a certificate in sheet metal work.

Among them are drug users, murderers, rapists, car thieves, child molesters and armed robbers.

Some had carpentry or electrical skills. Most knew little of the rapid spread of Lyme disease and much less about deer feeding stations.

Their instructor, Jim Orzolek, heard about the feeding station plan and contacted the inventors in Texas. A hunter and prison employee for more than two decades, Orzolek said he wanted to combine his two interests. And he wanted to stop Lyme disease -- he has friends who have suffered from it.

'Real-world experience'

"I realized, hey, I have people in a maximum security prison who could do this job," Orzolek said. "It's a real-world experience."

After getting approval from prison officials and the contract from USDA, Orzolek sought prisoners who hated idle time and wanted to lend a hand.

Joseph Johnson, 22, of Charles County was one of them.

"When I first saw these [deer feeding stations], I thought it was something for deer to just come up and eat out of," said Johnson as he used a bending machine to shape sheet metal. "I had no idea it was to get rid of their ticks."

Each station will hold 250 pounds of corn. To reach the corn, deer must put their heads between two paint rollers that will be covered with pesticide.

The poison, called Amitraz, is used for mites on pigs' ears. Scientists say it won't affect the deer, but will kill the ticks they carry. And as the number of blood-sucking insects diminishes, so will the risk of Lyme disease for people.

That's how it worked in Kerrville, Texas.

Lesson in teamwork

After a two-year study using the feeding stations for a group of 28 deer, scientists found 97 percent fewer ticks on the animals.

Building the stations is a lesson in teamwork for the prisoners.

With only a small blueprint and a prototype of the original feeder, the inmates make each feeder from scratch. Each inmate seems to have a specialty.

William Kuiken, 27, formerly a carpenter in Dundalk, and his partner, Thomas Dean, 53, once an assembly line worker at the Chrysler plant in Newark, Del., screw together the parts of the feeder stations. They brag that they can assemble the four major parts -- which their fellow prisoners have fabricated -- into a feeder in 15 minutes flat.

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