For the lifers serving time at the maximum security prison in Rahway, N.J. prison is a "hell hole."
But the 16 D.C. youth offenders on their way to visit Rahway last July joked and bragged that it was just another "prison trip."
Several hours later the trip became a living nightmare as the youths were verbally assaulted by inmates who described the horrors of prison life in an attempt toscare the youths out of a life of crime -- and into going straight.
They succeeded with 14 of them.
Attracted by the apparent success of the New Jersey program, nearly 100 District officials and juvenile justice workers met this week at a juvenile workshop to discuss rehabilitation alternatives for juvenile offenders, including establishment of a "Scared Straight" program at Lorton Prison.
This Sunday at 10 p.m., Channel 5 television will rebroadcast the film "Scared Straight," a documentary onthe Rahway program. The film will be followed by interviews with D.C. officials and youths who visited Rahway last July.
Alexander Yarborough, a supervisory juvenile probation officer with the D.C. Superior Court, will be among the officials appearing on the program.
In a recent interview, Yarborough described his experiences with the 16 D.C. youths who went to Rahway.
Before arriving at Rahway, he said, the youths -- all habitual offenders -- were "very cocky" and bragged about relatives who had been in prison.
But the trip home, he said, was silent. "The first rest stop we made all of them rushed to the lavatory."
He learned later that "one of the kids, who is going to appear on the show with me, wouldn't let his mother finish taking a bath (after he returned home)."
"He had to talk to her," Yarborough said. "After talking to her 1 1/2 hours, she said he went into his bedroom, fell on his knees and prayed. And he's been straight ever since."
To date, the reformed youths -- ages 12 to 17 -- have stopped criminal activities that once included burglary, auto theft and robbery, he said.
"They're in school. They are no longer behavior problems and their grades have improved."
Since last July, Yarborough said, top officials of the D.C. Department of Corrections, the city schools and the D.C. Superior Court have discussed the possibility of a "Scared Straight" program at Lorton Prison.
If approved, the program would be coordinated by Lorton inmates running existing prison reform programs such as Inner Vocies, the Lifers Program or the Veterans Program.
In the District, more than 5,000 youth arrests are made each year, according to metropolitan police figures. In 4,440 cases, youths later were referred to the courts for action that may or may not bring them before a judge, according to juvenile court officials.
Panelists at the workshop identified several recurrent problems contributing to youth crime. Among them, the panelists said, are high youth unemployment, improper counseling and evautation services, a shortage of juvenile diversion programs and poor coordination between existing juvenile programs.
Last year, unemployment figures for black youth in D.C. rose from 32.9 percent to 48.5 percent. In 1978, serious crime also increased. D.C. Police Chief Burtell Jefferson has attributed the increase to high unemployment, especially among youths.
Panelist Audrey Rowe, special assistant to the mayor for youth affairs, added that several youth programs run by cith agencies were "dumping grounds for personnel nobody wants."
Rowe further criticized these programs for mismanagement of funds earmarked for youth projects. Over the years, she said, the city has failed to avail itself of existing funds and resources for youth because "we've never had a comprehensive youth service policy."
Rowe said her office is developing a uniform youth police and making recommendations regarding which agencies should implement it. Emphasis will be placed on three major areas: employment, mental health and juvenile diversion.
Rowe said the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare also has expressed interest in the development of these programs in the hope that the District will emerge "as a model deinstitutionalization state."
Alternative rehabilitation programs were also outlined by panelists Roach Brown, director of Inner Voices, and Lawrence Guyot, director of training and education of youth at Pride Inc.
Brown, an ex-convict from Lorton, said he was one of 200 inmates in the Inner Vocies dramatic troupe allowed to stage dramatic productions in the community to help divert youth from crime.
Today, the community branch of the program in Northeast works with 500 to 1,000 adults and youth annually, providing counseling, referral assistance, diversion and arranging release for inmates, he said. Funds are provided by the United Black Fund.
At Pride Inc., Guyot said several youths have found employment after completing Pride's computer training program. The program also includes psychological and physical examininations, along with counseling, he said.
This summer, Guyot said the program will trian 100 young offenders from the Bureau of Rehabilitation -- a private, rehabilitation group -- as an alternative to sending the youths to prison.
The workshop ended on a dramatic note with remarks made by a young, recently released convict, Thomas Jackson.
"There's a lot of good people in the joint," Thomas said. "The Scared Straight thing is only a small part of prison."
Jackson said he had spent the past 8 years in prison. Now, he said, he is looking for a job and a way to stay straight.
"I want to know what you have to offer me."
"I'd like to meet with you at 2:30," Guyot replied.