Prison offers programs that focus on change

June 01, 2009|By HEATHER KEELS

HAGERSTOWN -- Tyrone Peterkin was 17 years old when he was sent to prison with a life sentence.

In those days, he said, peer pressure held a powerful sway over him.

"I got with a group of young individuals and we was just running wild," he said.

Peterkin, 43, is part of a group of inmates serving life or long-term sentences at Maryland Correctional Institution-Hagerstown who meet regularly to encourage each other to stay positive and work to steer younger inmates away from negative influences.

"If I can change just one individual, I feel better," Peterkin said. "I sleep better at night."

The support group, called the "Lifers' Group," is one of several programs that has been introduced within the past year at MCI-H to provide inmates with more opportunities for involvement and positive change, Warden Roderick R. Sowers said Monday during a tour of the prison for local media.


Built in the 1930s and 40s, MCI-H is the oldest of the three state prisons south of Hagerstown and the second-oldest operating state prison in Maryland, but it is caught up in a wave of cultural change to bring it in line with the latest correctional philosophies, Sowers said.

Sowers, who took over as warden at MCI-H in March 2008, said he and others have worked to move the prison away from the "lock 'em down, throw away the key mentality" and toward a more proactive approach that focuses on education, job training and social programs to change inmates for the better.

Inmates who participate in those programs are less likely to offend again once released, Sowers said.

MCI-H has an educational program that helps inmates without high school diplomas get GEDs, or general equivalency diplomas. Those who have finished high school or earned their GEDs can apply to work in industrial-type shops that provide services such as furniture upholstery, metal work and meat processing for government agencies and nonprofit organizations.

In addition, the prison has many programs that provide opportunities for inmates to change their attitudes and build skills for succeeding in everyday life, Sowers said.

For example, the prison began offering a parenting group in March in which inmates support each other as they work to improve their relationships with their children, social worker Abigail Smith said.

Around the same time, the prison introduced a "storybook program" that allows inmates to record themselves reading a book and, for a fee, send the video and a copy of the book to their child, Sowers said.

Another new feature is an inmate-produced news program broadcast throughout the institution, he said.

The programs are optional, but they present an attractive alternative to spending time in a cramped prison cell, Sowers said.

Some, like inmate Alphonso Coates, 38, are eager to fill their schedules with the programs.

"I'm always active in something," said Coates, who has taken two college courses, participated in the Alternatives to Violence and adult treatment programs, and has started keeping a journal to share with his 19-year-old son.

Coates said he looks at his 15-year sentence as a time to work on himself and "try to find out why I do the things that I do."

Not all inmates are as eager to sign up for programs as he is, Coates said. Many view their sentences purely as punishment, he said.

"They're just letting the days go by," he said.

Work in the prison industry shops doesn't pay much -- about $2 to $3.50 a day -- but it provides work experience that can help an inmate get hired after his release, said inmate Marion Dixon, 42, who feeds cardboard into a creaser in a box shop 10 hours a day, four days a week.

"It is a very strenuous type of atmosphere," Dixon said of prison life. "But if you're determined to make a change in your life, you can find those opportunities. It's up to you to take the initiative to seek out those things."

Peterkin said his initiative for self-improvement began when an officer at what was then the state penitentiary in Baltimore convinced him to stop cutting the institution's GED classes to play basketball.

"He would tell you, 'If you want to play basketball, get that GED, and you can play basketball all you want'," Peterkin said.

After experiencing the sense of accomplishment that came with getting his GED, Peterkin was hooked. Instead of playing basketball, he started taking college classes and working to improve himself.

Now, looking ahead to a court date for possible parole, Peterson said he hopes to one day be able to serve as a positive influence to youth on the streets, as he has for younger inmates in prison.

"They look at me like, 'You've been locked up all that time, how do you do it?' Peterkin said. "I just tell 'em: 'Hope.'"

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