High school students get taste of prison life

Isis Abdul-Malik of Cheltenham High examines a writing pen that cannot be used as a weapon. She and others toured the Montgomery County Correctional Facility as part of program in law enforcement education.
Isis Abdul-Malik of Cheltenham High examines a writing pen that cannot be used as a weapon. She and others toured the Montgomery County Correctional Facility as part of program in law enforcement education. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 05, 2014

The teenage cadets of Explorer Post 52 already had learned that the proper term is blood spatter, not blood splatter, and how to collect it at a crime scene. They had gone over other forensic procedures and the pipeline that criminal cases move through from police departments to prosecutors.

On Wednesday evening, four high school students got an up-close view of the next stop in that pipeline.

The slammer. The hoosegow. Or, as it's known locally, the Montgomery County Correctional Facility.

"This is the only time we welcome someone to the prison," Warden Julio M. Algarin told the cadets, who sat around a conference table before their jailhouse tour. "You guys look scared. Relax."

These experiences were what the cadets - Isis Abdul-Malik, 17, from Cheltenham High School; Sam Brown, 16, from Abington Senior High School; Josh Buck, 18, from Pottsgrove High School; and James Wheatley, a 16-year-old at Upper Dublin High School whose father is a Whitemarsh police officer - signed up for when they joined a law enforcement career exploration group sponsored by the Montgomery County District Attorney's Office.

District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman began the group in January. These cadets are its first. Regionally, Explorer posts are run through the Boy Scouts of America's Cradle of Liberty Council in Philadelphia. Different entities sponsor individual posts, such as Ferman's office or the Phillies.

Ferman's post is run by Detective Tyrone Tate. Remaining activities for these cadets include visiting the Mission Kids center for child-abuse investigations, and talking to victims' advocates.

Compared with field trips to the Plymouth Township Police Department and the detective bureau, the cadets were justified if they were more nervous about visiting where 1,875 male and female inmates were locked up during criminal proceedings or after being convicted on less serious charges that do not require long sentences served at a state prison.

The tour guide was Capt. Joseph P. Interrante, the jail's admissions and discharge supervisor.

He stopped the cadets as they were about to go through a thick, locked door out of the administrative area into the general-population section, and gave them their first lesson.

"Don't ever walk around a correctional facility with your hands in your pockets," he said. Not only is it considered submissive body language - a foolish weakness to show - but it could leave you powerless to respond if an inmate grabs you from behind.

In the booking center, Abdul-Malik, who aspires to become a Philadelphia police officer, asked about posters on the wall with pictures of sneakers under the word Attention.

Sneakers have a hidden compartment, Interrante explained, meant to hold coins or keys. "The inmates use it for hiding their drugs," he said.

Cadets saw the medical office and a classroom for inmates under 21 run by the Methacton School District. While the room looked as if it could be anywhere, what happened next emphasized that they weren't just anywhere.

As Interrante spoke, a detective who accompanied the group and stood in the classroom's doorway suddenly moved all the way into the room, pushing everyone farther inside, and closed the door. A maximum-security inmate and his guard were passing in the hall.

At a weight room with windows, men leered at Abdul-Malik, the only cadet with a parent on the tour. Tahiyyah Abdul-Malik stood next to her daughter. Closely.

From there, they went to a living pod and stood in a glass-enclosed control room, surrounded by inmates. The last stop was the staff dining room, where two female inmates served dinner. In the only direct contact with inmates, Abdul-Malik asked the women if they liked cooking. The pair said they did.

All the cadets said the tour had given them a realistic sense of that part of the law enforcement pipeline.

Thanks to movies, Wheatley had expected near-riots.

"Not that I enjoyed it here," he said, "but it was not as bad as I thought it would be."





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