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Prisoners Take Boy Scout Oath Behind Bars

Associated Press Writer

LA GRANGE, Ky. - Robert Jackson stood with the two dozen other members of Boy Scout Troop 825, raised his right hand in the traditional Boy Scout sign, and took the oath to do his best for God and country.

Unlike other scouts, Jackson and members of his troop aren't allowed to earn merit badges through mastering camping and other outdoor skills.

That's because they are prison inmates.

"We're trying to teach more long-term planning, how to live when they get out," said Mike Pitzer, who serves as adviser and scout master to the troop at the Kentucky State Reformatory.

The inmates are part of a rehabilitation program for emotionally and mentally disturbed prisoners serving time for everything from murder to sex crimes.

Becoming a member of Troop 825 isn't easy. Inmates must have a mental or emotional problem that renders their mental age at 18 or lower — the Boy Scouts require scouts to be under age 18 — stay clear of disciplinary violations, have or work toward a high school degree and be willing to follow the rules of the club.

The Boy Scouts sanction the use of their name, logo and methods, so long as the inmates do not have any association with the scouts upon their release, Pitzer said.
Brandi Mantz, a spokeswoman for the National Council of Boy Scouts in Irving, Texas, said the prison program has been successful in the past decade.

"It's always good to help those individuals work their way back into society," Mantz said.

Mantz said the Kentucky scout program is the only one in the state, but others have been chartered around the country.

There are things the prison-based scouts cannot do. Instead of hiking, swimming and camping, members of Troop 825, who wear khaki inmate uniforms along with tan-and-red baseball caps with the Boy Scout fleur-de-lis to meetings, earn merit badges for personal hygiene, balancing a checkbook and learning CPR and first aid. They also raise money to help other inmates and, occasionally, fund a trip by an outside Boy Scout troop.

"Some guys get here, find out it's work, and don't want to come back," Pitzer said.  The inmates who did make it past the initial introduction say the program is helping them work past the issues that landed them in prison in the first place.

William Hiemstra, a tattooed 32-year-old serving 10 years for attempted murder, said the program is teaching him to work better with other people.

"That was always a problem I had," Hiemstra said.

Jackson, who speaks in a slow, deliberate manner and worries about how he sounds, said the troop has taught him practical skills as well as how to trust people.

"There's a better life out there for me than doing crime and going to prison," Jackson said.

For others, like former paramedic Paul Hurt, who is serving three life sentences for sodomy, or Marion Butler, who is serving a 95-year sentence for murder and burglary in Johnson County, the Boy Scouts is a way to occupy some time that might otherwise not be well spent.

"It kind of tames the beast," Hurt said. "I want to see the other guys succeed."

The Kentucky prison scout program, which started in 1989 as a way for prisoners to raise money and to keep inmates occupied, is part of what corrections officials call a national move toward preparing inmates for their eventual release from prison.

Both state-run and private prisons are now offering some sort of prerelease program for inmates ranging from therapy to job training to education, said Cole Carter, director of educational service for Corrections Corporation of America, which runs 65 prisons in 20 states.

"The programs give them some hope and at least makes them less likely to reoffend," Carter said.

Jim Dailey, Kentucky state advocacy director for the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, said the programs don't do enough to prepare the inmate for release or help them once they are out of the prison environment and on their own.

"That's the disconnect," Dailey said.

Dailey said the Boy Scout troop is an "interesting idea" but without some post-release help, which the troop cannot provide, he's afraid inmates will fall back into their old lives.

"Many, unfortunately, will go back to the situation they had before they went into prison," Dailey said. "They don't know anything else."

But members of Troop 825 insist that the work they've done is preparing them for life outside the fence.

Jackson, a 40-year-old man serving 24 years for murder and burglary, said the lessons he learned will keep him from going back to prison, even without help on the outside.

"I grew up in the ghetto. I didn't have no respect for nobody," Jackson said. "I learned a lot about how to live in this little meeting right here. I'm ready for society."

Note: Not mentioned in the article is the fact that felons who are under the age of 18 are also able to become Boy Scouts. Most of these Scouts have no mental retardation. Additionally, it is well documented that all-male prisons are notorious for same-sex activities (both consensual and nonconsensual). While most prisoners would not publicly identify as an "avowed homosexual," BSA's position is that such behavior is incompatible with BSA's principles. However, it seems BSA is not above making exceptions -- when it wants to.

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