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Sorting Through the Years

Working for a Better Life

Melanson, 38, joined St. Elizabeths as an occupational therapist in 1990 and has overseen a long list of work programs for patients. He says the goal isn't to teach them job skills necessarily, but to keep their hands busy and minds focused. "Making ashtrays, belts, wallets," he says.

Then one year he visited a German mental hospital to observe a stamp-sorting operation that patients there had been running for more than a century, to great therapeutic effect. He brought the program to St. Elizabeths in 1999.

(Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)

Thirty men work in the stamp shop in three shifts, two men from minimum, eight from medium and 20 from max. There are other occupational programs in John Howard, including greenhouse gardening. James E. Swann Jr., the shotgun stalker who terrorized two D.C. neighborhoods in the early months of 1993, randomly killing four victims and wounding five, is a supervisor in a computer-training program that Melanson runs. And some patients in a writing class laminate their poetry for sale at craft fairs. But the waiting list to get into "Stamps for a Living" is the longest in the institution.

"Gets me off the ward," says Eric Izlar, 33, a patient for six years, currently in max.

He's sitting at a long table with four other men, seven plastic buckets in front of them, and a cardboard box holding maybe 5,000 stamps that just came in.

"Gives me a chance to think about some different things."

They're sorting -- U.S. stamps in this bucket, foreigns in that, commemoratives here, holidays there -- when David Heck says haltingly, "Today we got . . . we got paid."

Reaching into a pocket, he finds a sheet of paper and slowly unfolds it: his D.C. Department of Mental Health biweekly statement of employee earnings and deductions. It shows that $71.24 has been put in his account at the hospital finance office. Some of the money he'll give to a social worker to pay for diet sodas and a carton of Kools from the outside world. The rest he'll send to his 88-year-old mother "to help her with her medications." Heck says he can't remember exactly when his mother was last able to visit him, maybe five years ago. He's 56 and has been here since 1982, up in max.

As for why he likes the program, he says, "The fact that it's . . . that it's a variety of stamps."

Over the years they've found stamps from 160 foreign countries, along with nearly every U.S. stamp issued since the beginning of the 20th century, and many from the late 1800s. The ones they haven't sold are here in the room, in 60 plastic cabinets that line the walls, 60 small drawers in each cabinet, each drawer labeled for a different type of stamp.

"I enjoy the money," says Eldridge Dayne, 54, who arrived at John Howard 27 years ago, NGBRI in a bank robbery. "Helps me take care of my kids."

Dayne is the only sorter on the shift who isn't housed in max. He's down to a minimum ward on the second floor and hopes he'll soon be allowed outdoors to stroll the grounds. If all goes well for him, eventually he may get day trips away from the hospital, even overnight furloughs.

"I have eight kids," he says. "I had nine, but one got killed."

The kids are grown now.

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