By andrew Damstedt
BALTIMORE – The tall teenager looked down at his paper, then asked: “What else should I put on there to show my mother that I love her?”
“I like smiley faces,” Jessica Turral replied. “You don’t like that? Well, we can do a poem. Let me think of something.”
It was three weeks before Mother’s Day. The young man sitting at a metal table stared blankly at his card. He most likely wouldn’t be able to see his mother to celebrate, because the Baltimore City Detention Center doesn’t allow visitors on Sundays.
Turral was working with a group of jailed teenagers as part of the organization she started two years ago, Hand in Hand Baltimore, with a grant from the Open Society Institute Baltimore.
Hand in Hand’s mission is to help juveniles who have been charged as adults and are held at the Baltimore City Detention Center, an adult jail, instead of the Baltimore Juvenile Justice Center.
The idea behind the program is simple: Give detained teenagers someone to talk to about their problems.
Making Mother’s Day cards is just one exercise Turral uses to get teenagers to open up.
At the detention center that day, she and the teenager, one in a group of six youths, traded ideas. He came up with: his mother is caring, loving, loves the color purple and is a strong woman.
Turral took a crayon, wrote something down, and read her poem aloud: “‘Your love knows no bounds/your strength no end/ majestic you are like purple robes on a queen.’ … You like that?”
She got the idea for Hand in Hand after graduating from Johns Hopkins University, while doing a fellowship at the Baltimore mayor’s office. One of her assignments was to research why so many young men in Baltimore were being charged as adults. Her first visit to the detention center, she said, opened her eyes.
“I went into the detention center because I wanted to get an idea of what youth charged as an adult looked like,” Turral, 24, said. “I just thought if you’re charged as an adult and you’re 14, you must have like shot everybody at school or something.”
Instead of tough criminals, she found teenagers who reminded her of her little brothers.
The jail repelled her.
“This was my first time in a prison and so I was like, ugh, this is really, really gross,” Turral said, crinkling her nose.
But she stayed.
“I asked the young people, ‘Whose first time was this?’ and nobody raised their hand — and I was talking to a group of 20 young people.
“I was like, ‘Okay, whose second time was this?’ And some people raised their hands. ‘Whose third time was this?’ and the rest of the class raised their hand.
“And so I just blurted out, ‘What happened the first two times that you didn’t get it and y’all wanted to come back here?'”
The teenagers told her no one was in the jail talking to them about their problems. They said they weren’t receiving any mental health services.
“That really, really bothered me,” she said. “So I thought, ‘There’s 110 kids here at any given time. How could it be that the reason that they’re coming back is that nobody is coming to talk to these kids?'”
“So I went home and I was thinking about it, thinking about it, thinking about it, and I felt like God showed me a way to help these kids.”
The organization started with three volunteers: Turral and two graduate students she met who went to Morgan State University. Now, Turral oversees 25 volunteers who help out by working with the juveniles in the detention center, providing mentoring services after they’re released or running the organization.
Turral’s parents aren’t surprised their daughter created a new program. They say she’s always been a leader. She started her own business in high school, selling muffins and snacks to her classmates.
“She had the whole school working for her and selling her product,” her mother said.
But they are worried about her daughter spending time in jail.
“She’s (got a) very rosy-glasses type outlook,” her mother, Bardett Nicholson-Premick, said. “So I don’t think she recognizes danger.”
Her stepfather, Stanley Premick, a Baltimore police officer, said he knows the type of people Turral deals with.
“It’s a rough crowd,” he said. But, “I’ve met a lot of the guys she’s helped already and I’ve seen a difference in them from what they did to get into prison and after Jessica’s helped them to where they are right now. They really look forward to getting back to school, get a job and do something with their lives.”
Turral lives at home in Northeast Baltimore with her parents and her 12- and 14-year-old brothers, who inspired her work. She said she felt blessed to have parents who provided resources and a structured family life that many of the young men in the detention center don’t have.
“I sat home one day and I thought that if we weren’t blessed and if we weren’t in a particular situation then these little boys in there could have been my little brothers,” Turral said.
As a Hopkins undergraduate, Turral started a group that distributed prom dresses to women in high school who couldn’t afford their own, said Matthew Crenson, faculty director of the Johns Hopkins University Baltimore Scholars Program.
Turral was one of the first accepted to Baltimore Scholars, which pays full tuition to any Baltimore high school graduate admitted to Johns Hopkins.
“The program has ended its fifth year, and we’ve had lots of really good students in it,” Crenson said. “In terms of her level of activity and her drive, I don’t think we’ve had anybody that’s quite the same as Jessica.”
Turral graduated in 2009 with a degree in psychology. Her mother said she expected her to go on to law school or medical school. The Rev. Edward Miller, of St. Bernardine’s Roman Catholic Church in West Baltimore, said Turral has discussed her future with him.
“She has an incredible sense of giving and of justice and for a time she thought of going back to school to be a lawyer,” Miller said. “I said, ‘Jessica that’s not you. … And she prayed about it and said, ‘You know, you’re right.'”
After her fellowship at the mayor’s office, Turral worked as an AmeriCorps volunteer at Alternative Directions, a nonprofit helping individuals return home after incarceration. At the same time she was organizing Hand in Hand.
Alex Garcia, the Baltimore site director of the Notre Dame Mission Volunteers AmeriCorps, placed Turral with Alternative Directions. He said Turral is “everything we look for in a volunteer.”
“She’s an inspiring person and one who can create a program out of nothing,” Garcia said. “I hope it blossoms for years to come. It’s serving a population that many people tend to forget about, and we forget about it at the peril to our own society.”
Asked how she got the resources to start the organization, Turral takes in a breath, then begins to explain.
“When we first started we didn’t have any money,” she said. “I wasn’t thinking, ‘I’m going to start a nonprofit.’ … All I wanted to do was go to the prison two to three times a week and talk to young people.”
She applied for and received an Open Society Institute grant, which pays her a $48,750 stipend for 18 months. Pamela King, OSI Baltimore director, said Turral was one of 10 people to receive a stipend this cycle. Alternative Directions donates office space for volunteer meetings and for working with young men who’ve been released.
Hand in Hand sends volunteers into the detention center four days a week. Turral hopes soon to make that every day.
The volunteers create the curriculum, which is designed to encourage the teenagers and give them information about opportunities open to them when they get out of the detention center.
But the youths often lack self-esteem and don’t always immediately respond to her efforts.
“It takes a while for them to trust us, because they’ve had 14 years, 15 years, 16 years of being told that they were nothing, and they begin to believe that,” she said.
“So here you have me in there saying, ‘No, no, no, no, no, you’re great.’ And they don’t believe me.”
At any time, there are about 20 juveniles who are in the “inside” program. Turral also organized a program to help the young men once they are released.
The “outside” program provides weekly mentoring services and continues the plans that Turral has the youths start while in the detention center. Those plans include where the young men will live, where they will go to school and what type of job they’ll seek.
At the jail, she tries a variety of exercises to reach the youths.
On the day she was helping create Mother’s Day cards, she also tried a session where teenagers worked up plans for businesses.
One group, with Turral’s help, devised a community bank. Another wanted to open a strip club.
Turral critiqued the groups’ plans, firing questions at them, engaging them in discussion.
But she didn’t reach everyone. Soon after she began Saturday, she noticed four of the 10 youths who came to the session walked out.
“Don’t y’all want to go home, do something different?” she asked the remaining teenagers.
The young man who worked on the poem spoke up. “I do. Some people do. Some people don’t. At least you’re not wasting your time.”