Two by two the young men, shackled only by fear, walked the moonlight path from freedom into the walls of Patuxent Institution.
They weren't prisoners, but some of these youngsters from Anne Arundel County acknowledged that they could be someday.
"I'm just screwing up in school, and I don't really care," said Bryan Imhoff, 14, of Linthicum. "I'm here to try to stop what I'm doing now so I don't end up back in here."
As part of a 23-year-old program called Reasoned Straight, Imhoff and 16 other Anne Arundel County boys, mostly in their early teens, got an inside peek one evening last week at a maximum-security prison - and at what can happen if they choose a life of crime.
Once a month from November through March, members of the Anne Arundel County Police Department's youth activities program escort a group of up to 40 boys and girls, many of whom have been identified as at-risk by their parents or police officers, to Patuxent Institution for a three-hour immersion into prison culture.
The program and its counterpart for girls, Women Reasoning About Problems (WRAP), draw an estimated 1,000 children from across the state each year. Last week, about 20 Baltimore County youths joined the Anne Arundel group.
"It's a reality check," said Officer Rufus J. Gholson, who has helped coordinate the program in Anne Arundel for five years.
Gholson told the youngsters before last week's prison visit, "These things start small. You don't just wake up one day and say, `I'm going to murder somebody.'"
The prison visit began like a typical field trip. Teen-agers and preteens laughed and teased each other on the 20-minute bus ride from police headquarters in Millersville to the prison, on the Howard County side of Jessup.
Even as they filed through a metal detector at Patuxent, spirits were high. "I feel abused," joked Ted Ciafardini, 14, of Edgewater as a correctional officer patted him down.
The light mood persisted until the heavy steel door to the grounds of the prison locked behind them. As they marched silently toward a building filled with convicted killers and rapists, the boys realized this was no average field trip.
Inside, the group squeezed into a yellow-lighted cell to meet the prisoners who would be their tour guides.
One was Ronald Stevens, 46, a murderer who has been in prison for 17 years. He has worked with Reasoned Straight for 11 years.
"Step it on out, step it on out," he shouted to the boys when they hesitated before entering a cell.
A second was Edward Clark, 36, who has served 15 years for the attempted murder of a Baltimore police officer. Another was William Dean, 31, who has been in prison for more than a decade after being convicted of fatally stabbing his girlfriend.
A fourth was Maurice Loving, a sharp-talking man serving 15 years for armed robbery in Prince George's County.
"You're going to see what it's like to live in here," Loving, 42, boomed as the boys huddled at the edge of a cell. "And I hope y'all don't like it."
After reviewing prison rules - keep your hands out of your pockets, don't stare at anybody, don't let your pants droop - several inmates told the stories of their crimes.
The boys seemed transfixed by Clark, a well-spoken man in a greenish-blue polo shirt and pale green slacks, as he calmly explained how he hit an officer on the head with a hammer, took his gun and led police on a high-speed chase after a night of using drugs and alcohol.
Flanked by a half-dozen correctional and police officers, Clark and the others led the boys down a long tunnel that connects the prison buildings.
The first stop was the gymnasium, which, aside from the thick-muscled men covered in prison tattoos, didn't look much different from a high school gym.
Some of the men turned to stare at the boys as they walked around the perimeter. As the group poured back out into the prison hallway, a man in a stretched-out white muscle T-shirt strode up and asked, "Any bad boys in the crowd?"
A few timidly raised their hands. Some quietly said they had been caught with drugs or stealing.
The bulky inmate, Anthony Perry, who is serving 30 years for murder, prowled through the group as he ticked off reasons the young men should straighten out. "You don't want to end up here," Perry, 42, concluded. "Everything is taken away from you."
The group trailed on, up an old, green-painted metal staircase, through a hallway filled with small, cream-colored cell doors and into a recreation room where inmates played checkers and watched television.
"Eventually you get tired of sitting in the dayroom," inmate Dean yelled to the group. "So what's stopping us from getting up and leaving? Those bars."
Dean pointed to the metal bars showing through the room's many windows. "What I like to call this ... it's like a playpen."
By the end of the tour, snickers and giggles had turned into shaky "yes, sirs" and "no, sirs."