Inmates grow inside while helping those outside

February 15, 1998|By BRENDAN KIRBY

Inmates grow inside while helping those outside

Prison is not exactly the easiest place to make money.

But a service group inside the Maryland Correctional Institution south of Hagerstown has managed to raise enough cash to give away $150,000 over the last 10 years.

To the beneficiaries, that money has meant Christmas presents for poor children, charity for troubled youths and reading lessons for illiterate prisoners.

"There is no group that touches me the way this group does," said Mike Weller, who until recently headed up the Maryland Sheriffs' Youth Ranch in Buckeystown, Md. "It is just an absolutely amazing group."


Jay Crum, the administrator of Big Pine and Shining Tree, Washington County facilities for abused and neglected children, agreed.

"I think it's a wonderful thing that people are still people even though they are incarcerated," he said.

The group is the CAP Jaycees, a chapter of the U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce. Chartered in 1982, the organization has spread good will - and money - to dozens of organizations outside the prison and several causes inside.

The initials stand for "Contractual Agreeable People," which chapter President Paul Ford said is symbolic of its mission.

"It's not to come up here and pass time away. It's to develop personally," said Ford, 31. "Just like pottery with clay, we try to mold them."

The CAP Jaycees generate money through two main activities: a prison recycling program, through which they collect cans throughout the complex, and washing cars at $3 a pop.

Comprising about 40 members, the group collects more than $10,000 per year.

It's not easy, they said.

The aluminum can program is hard work: Last year, they collected 3,000 pounds, according to prison officials.

With the car-washing program, they are limited. Only the vehicles of the guards and staff are available. But with three shifts working around the clock, the Jaycees wash about 168 cars per month.

The group also sponsors an annual walk-a-thon to benefit the March of Dimes and sells candy inside the prison to raise money for prison programs.

Perhaps the largest beneficiary, though, are the Jaycees themselves, members of the group said.

Personal growth

"Since I've been in the chapter, I've learned a lot about myself," said David DeAngelis, 28, the group's vice president of external affairs. "This program built my self-esteem, self-knowledge and self-worth."

Cynics might question whether the altruism is merely an attempt to influence the parole board, and some members admitted that is why they initially got involved. But Ford noted that there are dozens of ways to earn parole certificates inside.

Cornell Watkins, 30, said that is why he joined three years ago. But his motivation quickly changed, he said.

"As I got involved in the Jaycees and found out all the positive things we do, the certificate part went out the window," he said.

Weller, of the youth ranch, said he has no doubts.

"You can just tell their sincerity," he said.

Prison statistics appear to back it up as well. Ford said only two of the hundreds of Jaycees who have been released from prison have ever returned. That is far better than the recidivism rate for the general prison population, and even outpaces the performance of other prison organizations, according to prison officials.

Jaycees also cause fewer problems than members of other inmate groups, according to officials.

Ford said that is because the group strictly polices itself. In addition to meeting all of the prison's rules, group members must adhere to the same bylaws that govern other chapters throughout the state and the country.

That means they must attend at least 75 percent of all meetings, participate in regular workshops and pay annual dues.

Ford said the group recently had to discipline a member. His punishment included a 30-day suspension, 30 days loss of car-washing privileges and a requirement that he write a two-page essay.

Lawrence Hayes, 30, said he has had two lock-ups in the 12 years he has been in prison. But since joining the CAP Jaycees about 18 months ago, he said he has found direction.

"I've been pretty much out of trouble. But you've got to be focused at all times," he said. "You can't let your mind wander."

Hayes said the group has helped him grow as a person. He cited an upcoming lecture he will give to the rest of the organization.

"Five or six years ago, I wouldn't have been able to do that," he said.

The Jaycees said participation in the group provides excellent preparation for returning to society. But the most important change comes from within, they said.

David Manley, 30, entered prison facing a 55-year sentence, tantamount to life. He said he was not thinking about preparation for the outside world when he joined.

"I was tired of living the way I was living," he said.

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