- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 10, 2006

To the outside world, the Metropolitan Transition Center (MTC) in Baltimore appears cold and imposing with its gray stone walls. But inside, inmates can now unwind in a garden graced with flowers and trees.

The oldest operating prison in the nation has replaced a centrally located concrete courtyard and weightlifting area with a tree-filled meditation garden and walking path so inmates and staff can unwind and reflect amid their normally stressful environment.

“It’s not a matter of giving something to the inmates, it is a matter of creating a more peaceful prison life for everyone,” said Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (DPSCS), which operates 30 state and municipal prisons in Maryland.

The prison will dedicate the meditation garden in a ribbon-cutting ceremony today after nearly a year of construction.

Most of the actual labor for the project was done by the inmates, including the stone and concrete work, the bench-building and planting of holly trees, flowers and vegetables.

The garden also contains a waterproof journal where inmates and staff can record their thoughts for others to read.

Prison officials hope to get the horticulture program started soon so inmates can begin learning job skills.

Most of the 1,500 inmates at the MTC have less than two years remaining on their sentences before release, and the former inmates will become taxpayers as long as they have job skills, Mr. Vernarelli said.

“We’re all about changing peoples’ attitudes and giving them valuable skills, and this fits right in with those goals,” said Assistant Warden Carolyn Atkins.

The completion of the MTC project makes it the second prison in the United States with a meditation garden and an educational horticulture program for inmates. Funds came primarily from the Annapolis-based TKF Foundation, which helps build and enhance natural areas in Baltimore, Annapolis and the District.

TKF helped build the meditation garden last summer at Western Correctional Institution (WCI), a medium-security prison in Cumberland, Md., where a majority of inmates are from Baltimore and the District, said Julie Von Hollie, grants administrator for the foundation.

The transition center was formerly the Maryland State Penitentiary that opened in 1811, and was Maryland’s only prison until 1879. It was reorganized in 1998 as the Metropolitan Transition Center to house short-term offenders.

“You can’t lock people up and give them nothing. … Human beings need diversions,” said Mr. Vernarelli. “Like they say, idle hands are the devil’s workshop.”

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