Kevin Riordan: Camden County inmates offered a chance to step up

An inmate speaks at one of the meetings that Marlowe conducts at the Camden County jail. A Navy veteran who works as an IT support specialist, Marlowe volunteers at the jail every Tuesday evening.
An inmate speaks at one of the meetings that Marlowe conducts at the Camden County jail. A Navy veteran who works as an IT support specialist, Marlowe volunteers at the jail every Tuesday evening.
Posted: August 22, 2010

Inside the Camden County jail, the only things more sobering than the surroundings are the statistics.

More than 70 percent of all inmates come back.

Nearly 80 percent come in with alcohol problems, drug problems, or both.

And perhaps 90 percent of the latter group will drink or use drugs again after their release.

Which is why Cheryl Marlowe - who combines professional polish with plenty of street cred - volunteers at the jail every Tuesday evening.

"What's the good news? Somebody tell me something good," Cheryl says, greeting a group of women from the jail's Second Chance program.

A 49-year-old Camden native, Lawnside resident, and Navy veteran, Cheryl is an IT support specialist at 6ABC.

She gives inmates whose lives are being ground down a chance to step up.

Inmates like Cathy, a 31-year-old mother of three who has been on PCP "since I was 19." Or Cynthia, a 48-year-old mother of two who names vodka as her drug of choice.

Cathy and Cynthia are among 18 inmates sitting in four rows of beige plastic chairs in a narrow room on the jail's first floor.

Cheryl stands behind a desk in front of a green chalkboard, but the bars on the windows and the two uniformed guards near the door make it clear this is no conventional classroom.

Nor is it Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, although the hour-long session sometimes resembles such "12-step" recovery meetings.

"I had less than zero," says Cheryl, a handsome woman with salt-and-pepper hair who neither talks down to nor cozies up to her listeners; they'd see through her in a second.

So she uses humor.

"I had to reach up to touch the curb," she says. "That's how low I was."

Cheryl asks if anyone would like to share, and Cathy's hand rises.

"I have three children at home who need their mother," she says. "I want to go back to them a changed mother so they can have a better life."

A petite woman in the front row talks about missing her son's wedding and daughter's graduation "because I'm locked up."

Her long hair in braids, another young inmate talks about going to rehab, relapsing, and "crawling into a detox." She has four children; another woman has 10.

Sgt. Clifford Kareem, director of Second Chance and other reentry programs at the jail, says repairing parent-child relationships is a major focus of the programs. Others include vocational training, health education, and linking inmates with social-service and faith-based agencies on the outside.

Speakers like Cheryl, he adds, offer another ingredient: hope.

"We have to change the way we think," Cheryl is saying. "People, places, and things - we have to change those.

"Where I was at was misery. Being on this Earth alone with no place to go, no shelter, no food, no money, no friends - it was hell.

"I didn't want to go back to that. I remembered the pain of that. So I used all that as my motivation to do what I had to do. Which was change everything."

More women speak. They are articulate, intelligent, earnest; they, too, are all about change. They're tired of selfishness, tired of shame.

"Now that I'm into recovery," one inmate says, "I'm very thankful."

She and others are finding that freedom from alcohol and drugs feels good. Even behind bars.

"So what are you going to do when you get out?" Cheryl asks.

"Call Cheryl!" they answer.

Despite hearing many such willing displays over the last four years, Cheryl has gotten only a handful of calls.

More than likely, she says, those women are still sober. And still free.


Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com.

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