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Mobtown Beat

Telling Tales Out of School

City Students Travel to Annapolis to Testify About Deplorable Conditions at Cheltenham

By Ericka Blount Danois | Posted 3/12/2003

Last Thursday, March 6, may have been sluggish, dreary, and lazy thanks to the rain, but a busload of teenage boys trudging their way through the doldrums to Annapolis were not put out by the weather. The group--made up of 16- to 21-year-olds who have been in and out of Maryland's juvenile-justice system--traveled to the state capital to address the legislature about the conditions at the Cheltenham Youth Facility, notorious for being one of Maryland's most decrepit and debilitating youth prisons.

All of the young people who took the trip are students at the Malcolm X Youth Center, a city facility that opened in Park Heights in March 2002. The center offers young men and women computer training, GED programs, job opportunities and counseling, and internship programs. The federally funded center is run by a partnership between the city, nonprofits, and corporations. The Malcolm X center, whose flyers state that its goal, reflecting its namesake, is "success by any means necessary," gives Baltimore City kids the means to overcome some of the barriers that prevent them from leading healthy and productive lives.

Almost all of the boys who made the trip Annapolis last Thursday served some time at Cheltenham; some participate in programs at the Malcolm X center as a condition of their probation. Others are high school dropouts who entered the youth center voluntarily.

The goal of the trip to Annapolis, says Cameron Miles, community outreach director for Advocates for Children and Youth, the organization that helped the Malcolm X center organize the outing, was to help participants feel that they have some power to make change happen. "It gives the students a stake in life and in the legislative process," Miles says. "So many kids think, They don't give a shit about me. This is an attempt to turn this on its head, and it allows legislators to hear their personal stories."

The Malcolm X students had planned to testify before the House of Delegates as it considered a number of bills proposed to improve the juvenile-justice system in general, and Cheltenham in particular. Legislators did not get to hear their stories because the bills were passed without debate.

Those ready to testify included 21-year-old Michael Ridgley, a Malcolm X student who has been in and out of Cheltenham since he was 13 for things like dealing drugs and stealing cars. When he first arrived at the facility, he says the holding cells did not have bathrooms--instead, the young inmates were forced to wait until a designated time for everyone to use the bathroom.

"If you had a bladder problem, you were out of luck," Ridgley says. "They let you go together one time in the morning, then you had to wait until the next morning. Sometimes you could knock on your cell walls for someone to come and let you go to the bathroom, but most of the time they didn't come."

He recalls that some desperate inmates ended up eliminating in their cells or on themselves, adding to already unsanitary conditions. The place had mold-covered sinks and showers, Ridgley says, and there were generally at least two people to a cell, though the facilities were made to house only one. Inevitably, there would be fights, and the shortage of staff members meant that the fights were rarely broken up.

"They pretty much just sat there and let you do whatever you wanted to do," he says.

Since 1943, advocates and educators have been trying to get Cheltenham, founded in 1872 as the House of Reform for Colored Boys, closed down. The Prince George's County facility has been under an even brighter spotlight since a probe in 2001 revealed widespread mistreatment of inmates, overcrowding, oppressive heat in summer, and antiquated, deteriorating facilities. In early 2001, the facility was cited for unsafe conditions by a fire inspector who recommended closing it down completely. The state has promised to disperse its inmates to newer, smaller juvenile-justice facilities across the state, and the 2004 state budget will propose that Cheltenham be closed once and for all, in favor of increased community-based alternatives to incarceration such as drug treatment, counseling, and supervision at a place like the Malcolm X center.

In the meantime, legislators have been looking for ways to improve the juvenile-justice system in other ways. On Thursday, March 6, they passed a bill that mandates that the time offenders serve in juvenile facilities be reduced and that time served between trial and sentencing count toward completion of a sentence. The bill, HB 530, also requires that juveniles be sentenced and transported to the designated facility within 25 days.

Ridgley had hoped to testify on this bill, in particular. He spent 10 months at Cheltenham, waiting for his sentence on a drug charge. When he was finally sentenced to nine months in a state juvenile facility, the 10 months he had served waiting around at Cheltenham did not count toward his sentence.

Stephen Trye, director of the Malcolm X Youth Center, says the students waited in Annapolis for four hours, hoping to testify on the bill. But since there was no opposition to this bill, no testimony was necessary. (The bill is not expected to make it much further through the legislative system, as it lacks a sponsor in the state Senate.)

"They got a chance to sit in on legislation," Trye says, looking on the bright side of the experience. "All of the bills dealt with juveniles--and it affected them directly. They realized they can make a difference by just having a presence."

Though Ridgley was disappointed he didn't get to share his story, he agrees with Trye. "I learned a lot," he says with a sheepish smile. "I was really nervous around all those important people."

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