Youths get look at life behind bars

Community activist leads at-risk group on Detention Center tour

July 27, 2000|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Imagine going to your room for the rest of your life.

A dozen at-risk youths from Pen Lucy and Govans were asked to do just that yesterday during a field trip to the Baltimore City Detention Center, designed to keep them out of jail by showing them life behind bars.

Dubbed "A day of reality," the field trip was led by sight-impaired community activist Robert Nowlin, 61, whom Northern District police officers call "the blind man who can see," because he's a watchdog over the drug-torn Pen Lucy neighborhood. With his neighborhood in turmoil, he said, quiet, good youths can be neglected and led astray.

Youths in the group, whom Nowlin selected, started the visit in an upbeat mood, but left humbled and vowing to stay trouble-free.

"Let's go to jail," said Michael Wilson, 13, as the group entered the fortress-like facility in the 400 block of E. Eager St. First stop, after getting frisked, was a recital of statistics: For example, 2 million people are incarcerated in the United States.

The message - that jail doesn't rock - soon began to register with the boys and girls, ages 11 to 17, one of whom had recently spent a month inside the center's grim walls. Another recognized a few faces from Hollander Ridge. A third had already been once to visit his cousin.

In the spare and stark visitors room, they were told that the inmates - 1,500 come in daily - are allowed one visit a week for one hour.

`Where's your privacy?'

Taking the visitors to the juvenile detention ward, to impress upon them that getting locked up and spending time there would be scary and uncomfortable, Capt. Kenneth Bartee, a corrections officer, said, "All the comforts of home, but where's your privacy?"

"This is the only place you don't have to think for yourself," Bartee added. "We'll tell you when to get up - and you will get up - when to eat, when to sleep, seven days a week, 24 hours a day."

"Why they got no TVs?" piped up Alex Burnham of Govans, 11.

"I'd be miserable without the phone," said Karisma Brown, 14, of Northeast Baltimore. "I'm never coming back again in my life."

Even inmate work is not richly rewarded, they learned, with a job paying 75 cents a day.

The group fell silent when Bartee was joined by three other officers who did a graphic riff on how hard it is inside: "I'm scared to come to work," said Officer Craig Williams. Inmates will "make a weapon out of anything."

`We can accommodate you'

"We don't care how bad or crazy you are, we can accommodate you," Bartee said. "If you don't listen to your mother or teacher, one wrong decision ... and it's hard to break the cycle."

John Walter, a Northern District officer on the tour, recognized a name on the juvenile color-coded chart posted in a correctional office to track inmates.

"He's from your [Pen Lucy] community," he told the young people. "He thought he was tough out on the street."

Another juvenile was given a sentence of life plus 60 years, according to the chart. "He's never going home again," Williams said.

Finally, a young man charged in the killings of five young women late last year could not be kept in the general population, they were told, because he was a marked man by inmates related to the women.

Strip searches were then described in detail.

Coming across some holding cells for adult inmates, the group listened to a chorus of shouts: "Stay out of here, it's a bad place. Don't break the law."

Darren Thomas, 15, of Pen Lucy summarized the lesson of the day: "Don't do nothing bad."

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