Weekends behind bars

Prisoners: A 9-to-5 program on Saturdays and Sundays for less-serious offenses eases jail crowding and lets inmates tend to other responsibilities.

April 23, 2000|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN STAFF

Luther Marshall Peyton bought all the eggs and the dye to color them with his 7-year-old son, had the ham in the refrigerator and was about as ready as he could be to celebrate Easter in his Highlandtown home.

But first, he had to fulfill an obligation: a couple days in jail.

He was behind bars at the Men's Detention Center in East Baltimore yesterday morning by 9 and will be free again at about 5 p.m. He returns today for another eight-hour stretch, and he'll have completed another two days in a sentencing program that allows convicts to serve their time only on weekends. Peyton is serving 15 Saturdays and Sundays for spitting on a police officer.

"I done it," he admitted as he pulled on blue jail overalls in preparation for painting an administration office. "What can I say? I was drunk."

Drunk and stupid, he said, but not a bad person and certainly not dangerous. And so, like 35 other men who have done stupid things and showed at the jail yesterday, he was doing his alternative sentence. He is allowed to live his weekdays free, then spend the weekend serving his time -- while keeping his job, his paycheck and his ability to take care of his son.

Every weekend at the jail, among the career criminals are men like Peyton. They haven't been in much serious trouble or, as in his case, haven't been in trouble in a long time.

His last stint behind bars ended in 1991, and he hadn't been arrested since. So, because jail space is in short supply and because Peyton holds a job, he became one of about 300 people who will face such sentences this year. They are known as "weekenders."

"We give them a spoonful of jail rather than a cupful," said LaMont W. Flanagan, commissioner of Pretrial Detention and Services for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. "It's a wake-up call of what the future will entail full time if a person doesn't change his behavior."

By no means are these men angels. They are convicted criminals. Among the 36 of them who lined up for their return to jail yesterday -- a sliver of a city jail population that hovers between 3,000 and 4,000 inmates -- were drug users and a couple of thieves. Some were in for traffic violations and assaults, others on charges of possessing drugs or handguns.

In Baltimore, the weekend program began in the 1970s as a way to ease jail crowding. Judges use weekend sentencing in virtually every jurisdiction in Maryland, and the practice is not uncommon elsewhere.

It has come under criticism in some quarters as too soft toward criminals, but Flanagan said Baltimore's program acts as a "graduated sanction," a punishment more harsh than probation or home detention but not as severe as a straight sentence.

"It allows people of a minimum public safety risk to pay their debt to society without being a threat to society," Flanagan said.

Some offenders are sentenced to spend the entire weekend in jail, but most, like Lawrence Green, check in at the jail at Constitution and Madison streets at 9 a.m. Saturday. They are put to work or kept in the jail's "bullpen" holding area until they are released about 5 p.m., then return Sunday.

"My first weekend was the roughest because I hadn't been locked up in a long time," said Green, 39, a painter from Park Heights who was also sentenced for spitting on a police officer. "Coming back behind these walls and behind these bars was like a nightmare to me. All you do is sit there all day and think -- what I shouldn't have done, that I shouldn't have started drinking again. Even though it's just for weekends, you're still locked up."

All of the offenders are required to spend their first weekend locked up overnight before going to their 9-to-5 schedule on succeeding weekends. Most serve about six months.

Authorities said they aren't certain of the recidivism rate among the weekenders, but Amin Sharif, the program monitor, said about 90 percent of them complete their sentences.

"We don't take any excuses," he said. "If they don't show up once, unless they have a very good, documentable reason for missing, they're out." Then they get full-time incarceration.

With only one more weekend to go, Anton Devries, 26, of Canton, almost blew it. Answering for violating his probation on a domestic violence charge, he needed to be at the jail by 9 a.m. yesterday and didn't wake up until 8: 45. He arrived right at 9.

"The first weekend's a reality check," he said. "After that, it's not bad."

He "prepared" for the weekend by closing a bar in Canton. "That way I can sleep while I'm here," he said.

Once inside the jail, the men are treated like any other inmate, said David Eberhardt, the program administrator. A dog sniffs them for drugs, they're patted down, strip-searched and locked in a row of four cells in part of the bullpen.

Each cell, painted pinkish beige, holds two benches and a commode. Lunch yesterday was a bologna sandwich, potato chips, an apple, a cookie, celery sticks and a carton of orange drink.

"It's not like living in a hotel, but it's good for me," said Warren Wells, 43, of Northeast Baltimore, sentenced for driving on a restricted license. "If I'd been sentenced to 30 straight days, I would have lost my paycheck. Who's going to pay my mortgage? Who's going to pay my daughter's tuition?"

He, too, bought the goods to make Easter eggs. He and his 7-year-old daughter made them Friday evening. Then, yesterday, he told her he had to go to work, left her with his sister and rode the No. 15 bus from Belair Road to jail. Next weekend is his last.

"She makes her First Holy Communion May 6th," he said. "I'll be there for that."

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