Earl Remson, 16, says he began his life of crime when he was "still a child," stealing crayons and notebooks from schoolmates. As he got older, he graduated to tape recorders and sports equipment.
For the last four years he's been in and out of juvenile detention centers on charges of burglary, forgery, petty larceny and car theft.
Remson (not his real name) has spent the last six months at Oak Hill Youth Center in Laurel, the maximum security detention center for District of Columbia juvenile offenders.
"I guess I've always been a klepto!" said Remson with a laugh.
But Remson says his days as a thief are over. Following his participation in a weekly Bible study program at the center and his subsequent baptism, Remson says: "I feel Jesus in me. Now when I think of stealing, I remember it's a sin. I learned you should try to treat other people the way you want them to treat you."
The Bible study program that Remson and other inmates say has changed their lives, is the brainchild of Earlene Darden, a volunteer Christian missionary. Her 90-minute Saturday afternoon classes usually attract 30 to 50 residents of the 150 at the center.
Students begin dribbling into the auditorium about 2:30 p.m., and Darlden and other church volunteers who are to take part in the program great each one with embraces and handshakes.
Many of the close-cropped youths wear shorts and sneakers. Some bring their own Bibles. Most stand to sing "We Shall Overcome," which opens the session.
"Does anybody want to tell us about anything good or encouraging that's happened since we last met?" Darden asks. Several youths stand and tell the group about their coming release from the center.
Then a student reads a Bible passage and Darden becomes the center of attention."Jesus loves you, whether you accept that or not, he does!" she continues. "No matter how bad it was, he'll forgive, but you just have to make sure you don't go doing it again!"
She tells them they must learn to read and write and accept authority. "No matter where you go, you're going to have somebody telling you what to do," she explains.
Clasping the cross around her neck, she continues: "If you can learn a trade, you can go out and get back in society and be successful. You don't need any BA degree or master's degree! Learn how to work with computers, or be a teller and you do just fine for yourself."
To prove her point, she bring forward a trade school instructor, who tells the students about his success, even through he "walked down the same road as you."
Now a woman church volunteer stands and declares, "When you want to go out and take a litte drugs, ask the Lord if it's okay." She pauses and continues. It burns me down to see you here. I think about my own children when I see you. You got no business here! Please do better."
Emotion is hot now, and some of the youths squirm in their seats, hanging on each word. Two middle-aged woman colunteers call out "Praise the Lord," and "Yes, Jesus," as speaker after speaker make appeals for goodness.
But soon it's over, and guards are nudging the youths toward the door. Some of them want to talk with Darden or her guests, but the guards hurry them out.
Darden looks sad as the youths are hearded away in mid-conversation.
Sometimes Darden stages practice court sessions during a Bible study session so that residents will know how to talk to a judge.
"I treat them just like they were my own children," said Darden, who is in her late 40s, and has two children of her own. "I know how to reach out to them, many of them are from borken homes, like me. The boys need love," she said.
Darden has been involved in institutional volunteer work for many years and currently holds weekly Bible studeies at Clifton T. Perkins prison hospital as well as at Oak Hill. She also visits other prisons, hospitals and nursing homes.
Darden says in addition to instilling religious and moral principles in the youths, she hopes to teach them social values as well: "How to open their mouths when they talk, and how to greet people.
"There are things they need to know, and nobody else will teach them," she says.
The students seem to return her regard.
"She's the first person who ever had confidence in me," said one 16- year-old. "I listen to the things she tells me. She makes real good sense. It changes everything when somebody's counting on you to do better."
Another student said, "The Bible study is the main thing going on here at the center). There's not too many people that are going to be behind you and try to help you when you're down, but Mrs. Darden is real good that way."
Other residents say Darden's Bible study program has helped them see their mistakes and correct them. Some say their behavior records can prove they've changed, and Darden agrees.
But the Oak Hill staff disagrees.
Administrator Edward Henderson, who has been in charge of the center for three weeks, said he's impressed with the Bible study so far. "But," he continued, "no one program has that much influence on any individual in an institution. If religion was going to change people we would send everybody to church."
Assistant Asministrator Charles Harden said he thinks the Bible study program "really helps the youngsters," but he doesn't see any behavior changes in the regular attendants at the sessions.
Harden said, however, that residents seem more enthusiastic about Darden's Bible study sessions than other religious activities at the center, such as prayer meetings and Sunday services. "I'm not sure whether they're going for religion," he said, "but it's a good sign."