BALTIMORE – It was 9:15 am on an icy February morning when Yusef El, graying, dreadlocked and soft-spoken, told a small group of disinterested inmates that they were about to begin the process of becoming “somebody else.”
Somebody who has the skills needed to cope with life “outside the fence.”
The 10 inmates who sat in the small classroom in “A” Building at the Metropolitan Transitional Center in Baltimore City seemed unconvinced. They slouched sleepily into the cold metal chairs, unaffected by the noise echoing from the prison yard.
Many of the participants are repeat offenders. Most have substance abuse problems and did not finish high school.
And all seemed skeptical that the seven-week program, Supporting Ex- Offenders in Employment Training and Transitional Services, or SEETTS, would make a difference in their lives.
Most skeptical of all is Kenneth Smallwood, a stout and husky 38-year-old who had spent the last 20 years of his life in and out of the prison system. This was his fifth time in “the joint.”
“Prison is real pain, mentally and physically,” Smallwood said. And doing time “on the box” — a phrase he used for a term of house arrest — is just as hard as jail time, he said.
He’s tried hard to re-integrate into the community after previous prison terms. But it’s never worked.
El was optimistic, however, assuring the inmates that they could make a change if they desired. He told them they could get and keep a good job if they focused on building fundamental life-skills.
But the community will only give them a chance if it’s clear they can handle it, he said.
If prepared for release, then “all you’re asking for is an opportunity to prove yourself,” El told the group.
An ex-offender himself, El knows what it’s like to be in their shoes. He has dealt with the stigma of a prison record and the physical torture of drug abuse. He knows that the initial challenge for many of these inmates comes from within.
“A lot of these guys need more than a job. They have to become somebody else,” El said.
“It’s hard to stop” living on the margins of society when that’s all you’ve been doing for years on end, he said. “You need to know how to do that and how to make changes.”
SEETTS, run by Goodwill Industries of the Chesapeake, aims to teach them how.
The program, started in January 2001, is the only one of its kind offered inside the walls of the Metropolitan Transitional Center to help inmates prepare for life outside. So far it has served just over 200 inmates, mostly young drug offenders who are nearing the ends of their sentences, prepare for life on the outside.
During the course, inmates meet for a few hours each week. They practice interviewing skills, learn about business etiquette, work on their resumes and identify their most marketable skills.
The meetings also let participants vent their frustrations and concerns. Inmates can act as each other’s harshest critics or biggest supporters.
At the beginning of the third session, in the midst of a lesson about business attire, Smallwood had a meltdown.
“Sometimes I don’t understand,” he said loudly, arching his broad back.
The group perked up and tension grew in the room as Smallwood told the story of the last time he was outside the fence. He was fired from a warehouse job after his criminal past was revealed by a background check.
“I was one of the best workers in there. I was confused as to why an employer would do that to me,” he said, his brow furrowed in frustration.
“I just wanted to go back and sell drugs,” he added.
“This is when you have to pull yourself together,” El said, as Smallwood hung his head.
As El tried to boost the dejected inmate’s ego, the classroom bubbled with chatter from other prisoners with similar experiences. They talked about harsh parole officers and the challenge of staying in compliance.
Many said the POs — parole officers — are too strict and will arbitrarily “violate” inmates who are otherwise trying to make good. One said other inmates at the center complained they were back in prison simply because they could not take time off from work to make a scheduled appointment with their parole officers.
Smallwood, a two-time parole violator, mumbled, “I just want to get off of parole.” The others shook their heads, empathetic to his plight.
But one usually quiet classmate, Paul Banks, fired back at the others.
“Be mindful” of parole officers and their rules, the 21-year old said sternly. “Don’t lean on these types of excuses.”
The group erupted in frustrated rants.
Terrell Peacock, 22, on his third stint in the prison, acknowledged that “having to choose between a job and a PO is tough.” But keeping your freedom is more important than any job, he told the group.
All of the men agreed.
And with that, a new conversation began, providing another vent session for nearly every inmate in the room.
The free-flowing dialogue, El believes, is perfect for the class, and he frequently harnesses the energy created by the debates. After the edgy banter settled, a lesson on interviewing skills began.
After several weeks of meetings, many in the class were developing plans for release.
Smallwood, a man full of doubts at first, is ready to start his life over again. And this time, he said, nothing will keep him from attaining his goals.
On a balmy April morning, he arrived early at the prison classroom, eager to join in the last SEETTS class.
“I’m really trying to gather myself. I’m getting close to 40 years old. It’s all about staying focused, staying on track,” he said.
The recovering drug addict said he feels like he’s “been sleepwalking through life.”
“Now it’s time to wake up,” he said.
Two months of classes had softened Smallwood. But as he left the sun-lit classroom to prepare for a GED preparation test, his resolve was firm.
“Before I stop breathing, I want something and now I’m gonna have it,” he added, his round cheeks thickly framing the makings of a smile. -30- CNS 04