After Decades Helping Detainees, A New Calling

August 30, 2009|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,brent.jones@baltsun.com

When Jimmie Shannon began working at a residential center for detainees in Baltimore 22 years ago, he wasn't sure where the job would take him. He was, however, certain that he was there for the long haul.

"And I'll tell you why," said Shannon, who retired as director of the Volunteers of America Chesapeake Supervised Residential Center. "Because I was looking for a job that I could have an influence on helping people."

Shannon, 64, stepped down in July from his position overseeing a staff of 30 at the 95-bed facility, which houses male detainees awaiting trial or serving brief sentences for minor, nonviolent charges.

Volunteers of America Chesapeake, founded in 1896 in Baltimore, is the regional chapter of one of the nation's largest human services organizations and works with 8,000 people annually through programs from Maryland to Virginia. The Baltimore residential facility, in the 1100 block of E. Fayette St., opened in 1987 to relieve crowding at the Baltimore City Detention Center.

Most detainees stay 30 to 35 days and go through a series of intensive counseling programs, some designed and implemented by Shannon.

Shannon was promoted to director of the facility within three days after he started. Since then, he's seen his share of successes and failures - those that have gone on to lead productive lives and others who have immediately returned to the streets. But having previously worked for 20 years as a correctional officer with the Department of Corrections, Shannon had seen firsthand the effect that the lack of a support system can have on an inmate.

"I knew I couldn't stay another 20 years or 30 years working at the pen warehousing people," Shannon said. "I wanted to do more for human beings."

Gretchen Crosland, vice president of correctional services for Volunteers of America Chesapeake, hired Shannon, won over by his background and sincerity.

"Jimmie had retired from DOC at a significant rank," Crosland said. "That said, he had the ability to supervise others and communicate well with staff - leadership qualities I was seeking for the program."

Shannon worked directly with detainees, most of whom had been arrested for minor drug possession offenses, failure to make child support payments or stealing.

One case in particular stands out, Shannon said. Late one evening, a former inmate who had been released six months earlier returned with his girlfriend and daughter. The man asked to talk to Shannon and told him: "I'm working now, and I owe it all to this program and you taking the time to show me I'm worthy of something."

Recalling the incident, which occurred after he had been in the job about seven years, Shannon said, "That was the first time that happened to me. It's happened since, but that has stood in my mind so strongly."

Added Crosland, "He spent time talking with them about life's pitfalls. He was nurturing to those that allowed him to be so. Several residents came back to visit just to thank him. And this is a field [in which] you don't get that a lot."

Not all of the outcomes were positive.

Three years later, Shannon said, a man came to the center after being convicted of possessing and selling drugs. He was charismatic, well-liked and someone all the staff rooted for, especially Shannon.

The day before his release, he told Shannon he was going to return to the streets and continue pawning off baking soda as crack cocaine.

"I told him if the people he was selling to found out, they would kill him," Shannon said. "He said, 'That's all I know and that's all I'm going to do.' "

Three days later, the man was shot in the head and killed.

"That set me back, made me think, 'What can I do?' " Shannon said.

Shannon stayed for 10 years after that. Then, one day last month, he awoke about 3 a.m., went to his basement, sat by himself and thought about his life. Shannon heard a noise, and when he looked up he saw his wife of 39 years standing at the top of the stairs. She knew he was thinking about retiring, she said.

"The spirit hit us both at the same time," Eunice Shannon said. "And we just knew it was time,"

The Shannons said they will spend much of their time volunteering at Emmanuel United Baptist Church near their home in Gwyn Oak.

Jimmie Shannon expects his work there will be much the same thing he's been doing for more than 20 years - focusing on those at a low point in their lives.

"God has blessed me, and I've helped people," Shannon said. "Now my church, which is very small, needs me in that same type of ministry."

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