Public safety chief wants partnerships with prison-area schools to go statewide

Jail officers can serve as mentors, Simms says

May 19, 1999|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Flanked by correctional officers who have showered an East Baltimore elementary school with books in the hopes of keeping its pupils from ending up behind bars, Maryland's top public safety official yesterday said he hoped to spread learning partnerships between prisons and schools across the state.

Stuart O. Simms, secretary of public safety and correctional services, said he wants to duplicate the success of his department's partnership with Johnston Square Elementary School, where some of the city's poorest children learn in the shadow of eight Baltimore prisons.

Spurred by a Christmas Eve article in The Sun two years ago about the school's empty library shelves, Richard A. Lanham Sr., then the state's commissioner of correction, asked prison employees to donate books. Thousands poured in.

Since then, correctional employees have established a clothing warehouse at Johnston Square for children in need and donated a washer and dryer.

For the past seven years, officers from the nearby Baltimore City Detention Center have mentored a small group of Johnston Square pupils, giving them reading instruction and taking them out for after-school field trips.

Simms said he was only beginning to talk to community leaders in Hagerstown and Princess Anne, on the Eastern Shore, about linking schools with correctional officers from prisons there who want to mentor children.

"We simply want to catch their eye," Simms said yesterday. "This is an opportunity to move away from the strict law-enforcement focus."

Katie Saltus, a correctional officer at the city detention center,said mentoring the children has improved her outlook on the job she has done for 22 years.

"It gives you more of a brighter insight when you look at the inmates we have," she said. "You challenge some of these kids -- they are bright kids."

Donya Brown, a fifth-grader who participates in the mentoring program, said: "They give us examples of what to be in life. They tell us that prison is not a good place to be. Your dream will not come true."

At a Johnston Square assembly yesterday, Simms told a group of third-, fourth- and fifth-graders the story of a young man he met years ago who committed a robbery -- at age 10. Simms learned that the boy -- now a prisoner in Hagerstown -- had missed 170 days of school, and never learned to read or write.

"I don't want any of you to walk that path," he told the pupils.

Simms urged the children to use The Sun's "Reading By 9" pages and to check out books from the library. "Who's going to read a book tonight?" he asked, receiving an ample show of hands.

Pub Date: 5/19/99

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