JESSUP, Md. — Alex Riesner is only 12 years old, but the robust hug he gave his mother, Deanna, before leaving her behind yesterday lifted her off the ground and made her squeal with delight.
The moment was like many others that took place last weekend at Patuxent Institute, where children like Alex spent time with their incarcerated mothers and fathers.
Patuxent officials said children visited 107 male inmates Saturday and 34 females Sunday as part of the fifth annual Establishing Family Responsibilities Day.
Officials said they started the program to “remind inmates of their accountability to their families and encourage them to maintain and strengthen bonds with their children to become more effective parents.”
The children arrived throughout the weekend, some with a parent and others with grandparents, but all had to pass through the security gate to reach the big, treeless lawn surrounded by brick buildings and a 10-foot-high fence topped with barbed wire.
Most carried picnic foods and sat under umbrellas. Several carried grills and soon charcoal smoke floated across the grounds, carrying the aroma of hot dogs and barbecued meats.
“This is better than last year,” said Bonnie Kampes, 58, of Cecil County. “Last year it was unbearably hot.”
Mrs. Kampes brought her 11-year-old granddaughter, Aryn, for a picnic and reunion with Tracey Kampes, 39, sentenced to 10 years for illegal possession and use of drugs.
Officials hope the program also will prevent the children from becoming criminals. Only inmates who have not committed any rules infractions in the last year may participate.
“Children of incarcerated parents are five times more likely to end up in prison and are far more likely than their peers to become involved in drugs, gangs and crime,” said Mark Vernarelli, spokesman for the Maryland’s Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.
The program seems to help. Nationwide, about 65 percent of convicts are returned to prisons for committing others crimes.
In Maryland, nearly 52 percent of convicts released in 1998 have been recommitted.
The state’s 27 prisons have about 24,000 inmates. Although Patuxent operates separately from the state’s Correctional Services, it has about 850 inmates. About 60 are females and 170 are teenagers at least 15 years old who have been convicted as adults.
Patuxent officials said they have a zero recidivism rate, which means no inmate released has returned to prison.
“My change is I now have a positive attitude,” said Kampes, who is grateful for the solitude she found at Patuxent. “I found God while I was here.”
Riesner, a Catonsville resident serving time for assault, said she also is grateful to be at Patuxent, but prison is prison.
“In some ways it’s stressful here,” said Riesner, 44. “But it is so much less stressful than the others. It’s very stressful being locked up. It’s very hard. My new roommate is from another prison. She’s really stressed. She’s crying all the time. I’m never going to come back.”
Her husband, Eddie Riesner, said: “Here is very good. The guards are very courteous.”
Many of the inmates at Patuxent are incarcerated for drug violations, but about 90 percent have been convicted of violent crimes.
“We treat the whole person,” said director Randall S. Nero, 47, a psychologist who has been employed at Patuxent for 19 years.
Inmates must serve at least 50 percent of their sentences before being considered for parole and are examined thoroughly. Then they are put into General Educational Development classes and treatment programs that may include psychotherapy, drug counseling and vocational training to learn such skills as carpentry, plumbing and sheet-metal work.
A dozen inmates are now in a work-release program. Patuxent officials take them every day to restaurants, retail shops and other jobs.
The inmates must pass drug tests and are always on time.
“The employers like our release program,” Mr. Nero said.
“I think it’s a great program,” said Rochelle Blake, 32, of East Baltimore, who was convicted of a violent crime and expects to be at Patuxent about 18 more months before entering a halfway house.
The special day was coming to a close yesterday at about 2:30 p.m. when she leaned over and kissed her 12-year-old son, Kevin, farewell until his next visit.