A quick transition from 'Sir!' to 'Yo!'

Part 3 of a 4 part Series

The Baltimore Sun/December 7, 1999
By Todd Richissin

From: John Morrison

On 'maximum' probation, the new grads wallow in weed, needles and guns. 'Are you selling drugs, Mr. Scott?' the state asks meekly. 'You high, Mr. Phelps?'

Man with the heroin is ready, kid with the vein is willing. Needle with the dope's probably dirty, but so what? The kid's shooting up for the first time, his virgin blast, worth the chance for a hell of a ride.

Jimmy Phelps spent five months in a state boot camp for juvenile delinquents. In April, a month after his release, he's back on the streets, feeling nothing, rolling up his shirt sleeve. Forget counseling, forget rehab classes, forget the pithy words of encouragement. None of it works.

The dope works.

Phelps remembers it clearly: On railroad tracks surrounded by woods in Southwest Baltimore, the man pushes the needle into his arm, slowly, slowly. Breaks the skin and pops through the vein. Pulls blood into the syringe, mixes it with cooked heroin. Pushes the mixture back into Phelps. Warmth runs through the 17-year-old, and there's an awful, awesome taste in his mouth.

Bitter has never, ever been so sweet.

"It's a rush, like it just comes over you, just like he said it would. Only it's even better."

Add another kid to Baltimore's 60,000-plus drug addicts.

The needle goes into Phelps' arm after he and 13 other kids like him graduate from the Savage Leadership Challenge, a boot camp run by Maryland's Department of Juvenile Justice in Garrett County. They were Charlie Squad. They took a few pummelings from the camp's guards, bled a little, got some bruises.

At their graduation, they stood before 90 people, pronounced themselves rehabilitated and swore to never do wrong again. Some may keep that promise, although for all of them that would be a first. There's so much weed and crack out there. So many guns and so much money. So many needles. And so little else.

That's where the state's promises are supposed to come in. The juvenile justice agency spends millions of dollars a year on after-care programs to stay on top of kids like these, to help their transition back to the streets.

If they don't want the state's help, too bad. The Savage kids are on "maximum supervised probation," an after-care program that's supposed to keep them straight through contacts with probation officers, drug testing, and classes on drug and alcohol abuse.

The program is supposed to be mandatory.

These kids, for the most part, are like Derrick Horrey, who followed in his mother's footsteps to become a drug dealer. On the juvenile justice agency's "psycho-social assessment" form, he lists his family as his grandmother, grandfather and sister. His mother is under "extended family." There's no mention of his father.

For him and many of the others, homes are not broken -- they never really existed. They're sons of junked-up mothers, grandsons of distraught grandmothers who fear another generation of their blood is going down.

And now they're back home: seven in Baltimore, two in Baltimore County, and the rest on the Eastern Shore and in Prince George's and Charles counties.

How to keep them straight?

Horrey has an answer. He's turned 18 and asked to go right from boot camp to the Marines -- no detours, because he knows he'll go bad back home in West Baltimore.

The other Baltimore kids are supposed to meet with their probation officer, Peter Mensah, as a group once a week. "If they come in, talk about their problems they're having, maybe it helps them stay out of trouble," Mensah says. "If they don't come in, how do you help them?"

Toward the end of March, by the second group meeting for the Baltimore kids, only two show up.

Mensah, 47, was a seminary student at Pikesville's Holy Trinity Monastery. He did a lot of counseling there and left in 1984. He thought working with juvenile delinquents would be an extension of good works for the Lord.

He's from Ghana and speaks with an accent. "Somebody got to do something," he says.

But on this day, he's frustrated: "How am I supposed to run a group meeting with two kids?"

'Been working'

Phelps, who grew up on Wilkens Avenue in Southwest Baltimore, shows up. He's high on weed, but Mensah doesn't know it for sure, and, hell, at least the kid's there. Roland "Reno" Scott, a kid from Poplar Grove Street in West Baltimore is there, too; he may be dealing crack again. It's his 17th birthday.

Phelps was a glue huffer who stole cars, dealt drugs. His eyes, sometimes blue, are neon-red road maps, his knuckles crusty with scabs.

"Are you high, Phelps? What happened to your knuckles? You been fighting?"

"No, sir. I been up working since 5 this morning."

Before boot camp, Scott took in $500, $600 a day dealing crack at a playground on Greenmount Avenue and 27th Street in East Baltimore. Not bad money for a kid with a fourth-grade education.

The night before the meeting, he shot dice at that playground. Made $140.

Mensah's sure Scott's dealing again. The kid's wearing a new Detroit Tigers baseball cap, new gold chains, a new watch, new baggy jeans, a new pair of boots, costly Timberlands.

"Are you selling drugs, Mr. Scott?"

"No, sir."

Both kids tell Mensah they've gone straight. Phelps, who got his high school equivalency diploma before attending boot camp, makes $7.25 an hour hanging drywall with his father, a former heroin addict who has been clean for three years. The work's tough, gives him bloody knuckles.

"You work your ass off all day and come home and just want to sleep. But I'm doing it."

Scott, whose father died from AIDS from a dirty heroin needle, lives with his sister, Tracy. He isn't working but tells Mensah he's looking.

"Nobody don't want to hire me."

Truth is, he's applied nowhere.

They're joined by four other kids who had entered the boot camp before them. Halfway through the one-hour meeting, two other Charlie Squad graduates show up.

Michael Taylor, being raised by his aunt, calls to say he can't make it. Elevator in his building's broken.

Christopher Leight, a 15-year-old from Brooklyn, doesn't show up. Maybe next week. "It's a waste of time. What they going to tell me I don't know already?"

Darryl Gross, who turned 18 at Savage and lives in the McCulloh Homes projects in West Baltimore, is absent but excused because he says he has a job.

Horrey doesn't have to show up because he's supposed to be headed for the Marines.

Against his wishes, he's in Baltimore because his Marine papers aren't in order. The boot camp guards promised someone from the Corps would be by to pick him up within a week of graduation. It has been two weeks.

So he shows up at the group meeting on his own.

"Just to chill."

'So many kids'

Before boot camp, Horrey made a living selling drugs. His father is missing; his mother, a drugged-out prostitute who likes to fight, is locked up.

The Marines won't have him yet. While he's still on the streets, he needs cash.

So he hustles. Again.

On March 26, 14 days after graduating from boot camp, he's picked up on adult charges of selling crack on Myrtle Avenue in West Baltimore. He's released on his own recognizance but arrested three days later. Police say he went right back to dealing. After two months in jail, the charges are dropped.

"After that second time, I said no more. I ain't cut out to hustle."

But he's locked up again Aug. 28, this time on an assault charge, his third trip to jail since leaving boot camp.

Meanwhile, Mensah, who is supposed to work 40 hours a week, has 54 kids to supervise. He's supposed to counsel many of them one-on-one at least two hours a week. Mensah sometimes works 60 hours a week, sometimes 70. It isn't enough.

Every week, two kids, sometimes three, show up for his group meetings.

All of the kids are supposed to have two more contacts with the juvenile justice agency's after-care system each week. That means seeing probation officers again, and attending drug and alcohol classes.

If Mensah had more time, he might find that Gross, who once sneaked crack into the boot camp, doesn't really have a job.

And Leight, a gun-packing crack dealer, is staying out all night, not only blowing off the group meetings, but his rehab classes as well. A week after he gets home, he kills his little brother's rabbit for nibbling on his shoes. Slams it into a brick wall.

It doesn't take long for Mensah to lose track of almost all of Charlie Squad.

"There's so many kids," he says. "You try to call some of them, find out what's going on in their lives, but you can't keep track of all of them all the time. You do the best you can."

Charlie Squad kids from outside the city are to meet with their probation officers, too. Kevin McManus, a skinny car thief and drug dealer from Mount Rainer in Prince George's County is overjoyed: He has no probation officer and won't until the state can find someone to take the job, which requires a four-year college degree and starts at $437 a week.

Darrell Shanklin is living in Charles County, with his grandmother battling cancer and his mother suffering from multiple sclerosis. He tells his probation officer he's looking for work. He has applied at one place, a 7-Eleven in Waldorf, and hasn't been called.

None of the boot camp graduates will be punished for failing to see their probation officers. Not one makes all his scheduled appointments. Taylor shows up for just two, no more.

In May, two months after their graduation, Charlie Squad's cadets are required to attend a "refresher" weekend at the Savage camp.

Six of the 14 show up. Four of the six test positive for drugs. They're told to quit or else.

They spend two days at the camp, then return home again, back to blowing off the conditions of their release.

'What you need?'

Gilberto de Jesus, head of Maryland's Department of Juvenile Justice, says that "maximum supervised probation" means kids who violate probation are likely to be "violated" -- to have warrants put out for their arrest or face further restrictions from the department.

"Maybe not the first time, maybe not the second time," de Jesus says, "but we are getting tough with these kids, showing them that there are consequences to their actions."

In theory, three contacts a week with probation officers and counselors will help these kids ease into a new, rehabilitated life, away from trouble. In theory, they will stay off drugs because they will be forced to take drug tests without warning.

Real life is a lot different.

Phelps, Scott and the rest of Charlie Squad don't have to answer for probation violations because the state cannot keep track of them -- and even if they were rounded up again, there isn't room in the state's juvenile detention centers for them.

The only way the 14 answer for violations is if they're arrested for committing another crime -- and by then their crimes overshadow their probation problems.

Boot camp may have made an impression on some of these kids. But once they're released, here's what the state's after-care workers are up against: Most of the kids return to their old neighborhoods, blocks of vacant rowhouses, places lost to the drug trade.

Horrey returns home, and his mother is locked up again on drug charges. Phelps walks Wilkens Avenue in Southwest Baltimore to his old hangouts, where junkie after strung-out junkie is either nodding or looking for the next fix. Scott goes back to his old drug-dealing haunt, the playground on Greenmount Avenue.

Almost all these kids have gone years, sometimes their entire short lives, with no real parents and few role models other than those selling drugs on the corners. And in Baltimore, where estimates peg one of every nine or 10 residents as a heroin or crack addict, there's always plenty of work.

Leight, the kid who abandoned his probation, hangs at the Brooklyn Homes projects, where cars drive through day and night as corner hustlers hawk their dope like stadium vendors selling beer.

Roll by slowly and runners are at the car.

"Hey! Yo!" a hustler yells. "What you need?"

Kids learn early: Make $5.25 an hour frying greasy onion rings for the fat fools at Burger King, or hang on the corners, on the playgrounds, outside the blitzkrieged rowhouses, where bullets may be an occasional hazard but it's otherwise easy to sell drugs for way above minimum wage.

No benefits in slinging? Try $600, $800 a night -- more around the first of the month, when the checks come in. Scott knows it from the playground.

"Them fiends be wantin' it. They be crawlin'."

'Didn't do it'

Mensah wants Scott. The kid has embarrassed him.

In May, guards from Savage came to pick up Scott from Mensah's office for the return weekend to boot camp. The kid slipped away. He's the only one who will have a warrant taken out on him for missing Mensah's meetings.

The probation officer drives Greenmount Avenue, looking to catch Scott dealing so he can have him locked up again. Mensah knows the police won't go after the kid for violating probation, knows the department won't lock him up.

No luck. Can't find him.

Then Scott is arrested June 18. Police charge him with selling crack on the playground. They don't know about the warrant that Mensah put out on him, and they let Scott go after a couple of hours.

He's arrested again a week later. Police say he gave them a false name when they questioned him. Again, they don't know about the warrant Mensah put out on him, and they let Scott go.

Kid lives a charmed life.

McManus also skates by.

When he returned to his house in Mount Rainer after graduation, buddies greeted him with a bottle of Paul Masson wine. Just a one-night celebration, he says. At boot camp, he had cried more than any of the kids and swore over and over that his thug days were over. No more stealing cars, selling crack.

"I'm getting me a job and not getting locked up. I can't take being locked up."

Within two weeks of returning home, he's working at McDonald's.

"I kind of like it."

His mother gets her income-tax check back, gives him $200. He buys an eight ball of coke -- 8 grams -- for $100, chops it up, turns it into $250.

Two weeks later, he quits McDonald's after he's accused of stealing $20 from the cash register.

"I didn't do it."

And then June 22, McManus and police say, he's cruising the streets of Mount Rainer in a stolen car. A cop flips on the blue lights. The car with the kids drives on. The siren sounds. The kids pitch crack out the window and bail out of the car. The cop pulls his gun. The kids freeze. McManus is on his stomach, face to the pavement. Cuffed.

He ends up at the state's Cheltenham Youth Center in Prince George's County. He has been there twice, once for assault, once for robbery. This time, he's charged with unauthorized use of a motor vehicle, driving without a license, reckless driving, speeding and evading, and failure to stop at a stop sign.

He could do 12 to 18 months in a juvenile jail.

His newly hired probation officer, Carol Edmonds, arrives at Cheltenham to interview him. They have never met. They sit at a round table, and Edmonds tells him what his sentence could be. She promises to try to help. McManus slumps.

"If you were to get out right now, do you think you could do OK?"

"Yes, ma'am. I'm not doing wrong no more. I can't take this no more."

Four days later he goes to court. Cop doesn't show. He's released.

"I knew I wasn't doing no year."

'Pray to God'

On the railroad tracks in Southwest Baltimore, Phelps savors his first blast of heroin. Once that euphoria overtakes him -- that feeling heroin users say only other heroin users can ever appreciate -- he walks to the corner of Wilkens Avenue and South Stricker Street and smokes a Newport 100.

He'll let a day go by and shoot dope again. Then another blast. Then again and again.

"Thing is, you can stay off it and get all sick, or you can spend $10 and feel normal."

In a matter of a couple of weeks at most, the kid's a bonafide junkie.

By October, it's nothing for him to take to the woods alone and stick the needle in his arm.

He's also having unprotected sex with his sometimes-girlfriend, a 17-year-old heroin user herself, a girl who turns tricks with other junkies for dope.

He lives in an abandoned shell of a house on Calhoun Street, a shooting gallery where the zombies stagger in, shoot up, nod, crash, get up, look for their next fix. The million flies are only a minor annoyance.

When Phelps doesn't have needles, he borrows them from other junkies, sticks them in his arm or has one of the fiends do it.

In the shooting gallery, a discarded prescription bottle for the drug Combivir lies on the floor of a second-story bedroom. It rests next to a pile of ashes, the remains of a burned chair. Combivir is a common drug among heroin addicts who use dirty needles. It's used to treat people who have HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Phelps burns some drug dealers for their dope. He's supposed to be slinging it, but takes off, sells some of it for pocket money, uses the rest.

"Those boys want me dead."

He's getting there. He's been out of the boot camp two months, using the needle one.

He's losing a pound a day, down from 185 to 155. The crooks of his arms are bruised purple from the needles, his blue eyes are vacant from the dope.

On June 23, desperate for money for a fix to prevent stomach cramps, nausea and the sweats, he goes to his grandmother's house on South Stricker Street. He breaks in. Blue lights flash. Cops arrive. He's cuffed.

He spends some time at Cheltenham, goes through withdrawal. He feels like he's going to die. Eventually he's transferred to Mountain Manor, a state rehab facility in Southwest Baltimore. The building overlooks Loudon Park Cemetery, row after hilly row of gravestones.

He's glad to be in rehab. Shortly after he started shooting heroin, he thought of going to his probation officer for help. But he kept putting it off for one more blast. He says he didn't need the stupid boot camp but thought he needed rehab all along. Now he's sure he needs help.

"You can't get rid of that habit on your own. That s--- too strong."

He needs to put on weight. He doesn't think he'll do wrong again but says he doesn't know. He's 18, an adult now, and the next charge could bring prison time, and wouldn't that be a bitch?

And there's something else to worry about.

Woman with the needle is ready, kid with the vein is willing.

She pushes the needle into the kid, slowly, slowly.

Pulls blood into the syringe. Sends it to a laboratory to see if the junkies gave the kid something more than a hell of a ride.

The kid feels something. He's scared.

He looks out the window. The cemetery looks so full.

Damned needles. Damned jun-kies. Damned AIDS.

The test takes a few days.

The kid with the vein concedes:

"All I can do is pray to God."

Other Parts to this Series:
Part 1 - Why are you crying? Answer: 'My life, sir'
Part 2 - On graduation day, an illusion of hope
Part 4 - After more than a year, where are the former cadets now?

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