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Prison program brings inmates, victims together

June 12, 2000|By MARLO BARNHART

Listening to "Jane" talk about her feelings about being mugged last year, Donnell Ramson got angry.

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"She's the same age as my grandmother how could someone do that to her?" asked the Maryland Correctional Training Center inmate.

Then Ramson, a convicted armed robber, realized he doesn't remember the face of his own victim. He said that made him feel bad.

Such realizations are why a new program that brings together inmates and victims is getting high marks from prison officials, inmates and victims alike.

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The VOICE program - Victim/Offender Impact Class and Education - was developed to show offenders the pain and loss suffered by victims and to help offenders take responsibility for their criminal behavior.

The pilot class was in February, according to Sharon Rucker, volunteer activities coordinator at MCTC. Another was in March and the most recent was May 25.

"This helps me as much as it helps you," said Bud Matthews, 61, of Frederick, Md., who has been in a wheelchair for 54 years because of a drunken driver.

Matthews spoke in May to more than two dozen MCTC inmates who volunteered for the program. He urged them to do whatever it takes to get their lives straightened out.

"If you think this is bad, try spending time in my shoes," Matthews said, comparing their situation to his wheelchair. "I got a life sentence with no parole. The man who did this to me got a $50 fine."

One inmate, who asked not to be identified, was visibly moved by Matthews' story of how older boys caused him to fall from a speeding car and nearly lose his life when he was 7.

"I was like one of those people doing things to people and now I feel the pain," the inmate said.

An 81-year-old Hagerstown resident, "Jane" asked that her real name not be used.

Since she was mugged last year, Jane said her life has changed but not all for the worse. She said she feels getting involved with VOICE has been a good thing.

"The minute I was mugged in that supermarket parking lot, I knew he wasn't a bad person," Jane said of her attacker. She said she'd like to tell him that in person at the Western Correctional Institution where he is serving time.

Telling her story to inmates might help somebody, Jane said.

MCTC Assistant Warden Princeton Young said the VOICE inmate group meets for three weeks and talks about crimes of all types.

"We want inmates not to commit the same types of crimes when they go back out in the community," Young said.

One point of those classes is to debunk some inmates' feelings that they are victims too.

"We tell them that the definition of victim includes that they have no choice the criminal had a choice," Young said.

Terri Gable surprised the inmates when she walked up to them, lifted her shirt and showed the deep scars in her abdomen, reminders of the drunken driving incident eight years ago that nearly claimed her life.

In a coma for weeks, Gable underwent months of therapy, surgery and pain.

"I have gotten justice in a way because the man who hit me is dead," Gable said.

The man, age 43, was found in his Hagerstown apartment in April, dead of natural causes, police said.

With substance abuse a big factor in many prison sentences, Gable said she wanted the inmates to know how another person's drinking turned her life upside down.

That day, he had been drinking along the Potomac River all day and was driving with no license, Gable said. Later it was found he had a .33 blood alcohol level - three times the legal limit in Maryland.

"I wrote him a letter forgiving him," she said, adding that she believes God kept her alive for a reason, such as talking to inmates in programs like VOICE.

Inmate Anthony Williams spoke for the group when the program was over.

"I want to thank all the victims for having the courage to face us especially the older lady," Williams said.

Inmate Marshall Morgan was angry about the man who hit Terri Gable.

There "should have been more done to that man for what he did to you," Morgan said.

Ramson said seeing the victims had an effect on him.

"I don't plan to come back," Ramson said, adding that he was looking forward to hugging his grandmother when he gets home.

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