Program gives children a look at darkness of prison life

October 27, 2004|By GREGORY KANE

YOU COULD almost reach out and touch Bobby Pringle's pain.

There he stood, in the middle of a room at the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup, as 15 pairs of eyes stared intently at him. Pringle, his voice quivering a little as it rose, told the 10 boys and five girls about the three days when things go from merely depressing to very depressing for him in prison.

"One is Christmas," Pringle told the group. "The other is Aug. 29. That's the day I committed murder."

Pringle had begun his story by telling the youngsters - who had come to the prison as part of its IMPACT (Inmates Making a Positive Attempt to Collectively educate Teens) program - that he was serving life for felony murder.

"I will be in here the rest of my life because I committed first-degree murder," Pringle said. On every Aug. 29 for the past 15 years, Pringle has relived the act that changed his life forever.

"I keep thinking about the events of that day, when I put a gun to that man's head and blew his head off," Pringle said.

The teens, sitting upright with their hands on their knees as Pringle had instructed them, kept their eyes riveted on him as he paced back and forth. Then Pringle told them about the third day that causes him some anguish behind prison walls.

"It's today," Pringle said. "October 22. My birthday. Today I hit the big 5-0, and I have to celebrate it in prison."

Pringle wanted these kids - sent to Jessup with their parents' consent - to know what life was like in prison. According to Mark A. Vernarelli, the director of public information for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, most of the kids who go through the IMPACT program are "at risk" - a euphemism for knuckleheads in trouble with the juvenile justice system. Pringle and the seven other inmates who participate in the program - Ronald Drake, Clifton Footes, Charles Hursey, Jeffery Thurman, Derick Tyson, James Wells and Warren Hynson - want to make sure those kids don't end up in prison.

All the inmates tell the children the stories of how they came to do either life or very long sentences. They try to drive home the point that prison - no matter what today's rap artists tell them - is not a place they want to be.

"The reason we're doing this," Pringle told the kids, "is to save your natural behinds from coming in here."

Vernarelli said those boys and girls taking the tour Friday were not "at-risk kids, but many others are." Most of them, Vernarelli said, were brought by people at the Christian Outreach Center in Clinton. About two or three "were sent by their parents or guardians as a deterrent, I guess you could say."

The youngest child in Friday's group was 11 years old, the oldest 17. All were in the grades they should have been, based on their ages, which is not a common trait with juveniles who have run afoul of the law. A few of the boys did "fess up" to being discipline problems, and one in particular said he regularly got into fights and thought he was the baddest guy in his neighborhood.

So why would the parents of kids not necessarily at risk send their offspring to IMPACT?

"Word gets out about this program," Vernarelli said, "and about the sincerity of the inmates and Sgt. Ruth Johnson. Folks can't wait to get their kids in. Sgt. Johnson and these inmates are out to save lives, period."

Johnson is a corrections officer who also acts as adviser and liaison for the program, which started in 1999. It's not designed to be a "Scared Straight" kind of deal.

"We don't do a bunch of yelling and screaming," said Tyson, who went through two "Scared Straight" programs. "We try to educate 'em."

These inmates take youngsters who might have overdosed on the likes of 50 Cent and other rappers bragging about the "thug life" and introduce them to the reality of being in prison and the need to focus on their education, something a few of the IMPACT members have not neglected, despite serving life terms.

"I was illiterate when I came into prison," Wells told the boys and girls. "I started reading for the first time in my life, and the whole world opened up to me."

Wells, 55, has a bachelor's degree in psychology from Coppin State University. A dean's list student and the author of two books, Wells also teaches reading in the prison General Education Development certificate program. Hynson tutors students in math.

Baltimoreans, facing what seems like the umpteenth week of disruption caused by unruly students who have some at-risk issues of their own, might consider having the worst cases take that trip to Jessup.

A few hours behind those walls might be the eye-opener they need.

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