A special program established at the Prince George's County Correctional Center early this year is helping women incarcerated at the jail learn to become better parents while away from their children.

The six-week program, which is open to women in the jail who have children under age 5, is designed to improve the literacy skills of the mothers and subsequently of their children and to help the women provide better role models for their youngsters once they are released from jail.

And on the last day of class, the mothers, who generally are not allowed contact visits with anyone outside the prison, visit with their children in the library, reading and playing games that they have learned.

In many ways, the program is designed to break a cycle in which children, raised by parents who did not know how to help them, grow up to become poor parents themselves.

"They haven't had good role models," said Susan Smithers, a librarian at the correctional center and one of the officials who works with the program. "Mothers are the first teachers. Even if they are incarcerated, they should not be without the opportunity to keep that bond alive."

Bonnie Sue Boyd has not seen her 3 1/2-year-old son since being arrested in December and charged with child abuse. She said the program has helped her realize that she can make a difference in her son's life, and she has been writing him every day and calling him every Saturday when he is visiting her mother.

"By writing to him it makes him . . . feel wanted. We are a part of our kids' lives, even though we are incarcerated," Boyd said.

The program is sponsored by a variety of county offices and groups, including the corrections department, the library system and the county's literary council, and is based on a curriculum designed by private educators. The focus is providing women with the framework to understand the importance of quality time, reading, writing and household rituals that give their children structure, providing a better atmosphere for learning.

Prince George's County Correctional Center, a 3 1/2-year-old facility in Upper Marlboro that has no bars or separations between the staff and the inmates, houses about 1,100 inmates, but less than 10 percent are women. Because it is a pretrial facility, the average stay is four to six months.

"We never could have had a program like this in a traditional jail," said Christy Merenda, the public information officer at the correctional center. "The staff are referred to as correctional officers, not guards. They are passive, they are not thugs. The inmates . . . see them not as the enemy but as a helping professional."

The course offers literacy assessment, tutoring and computer training, and once a week the program is reserved for major project activities, when the women spend most of the day together in the library.

The major project activities are divided into four components. The literacy section is taught by volunteers from the Literacy Council of Prince George's County. They offer tutoring in reading, writing and vocabulary, and computer training. The "Megaskills" section shows the women how to use activities in the home, such as setting a table, to teach children initiative, responsibility and self-esteem. The parenting section teaches parents how to use positive discipline with their children. During the storytime section, the mothers read children's books and are read to by the instructors, learning the powerful effect the books have on children, both in learning to read and in teaching moral lessons.

The program is funded through September. "At the end of September, we will be looking for other resources to fund it," said Honore Francois, coordinator of extension and special services for the county's library system. "It's too good a service not to continue it."

On the first day of the most recent session, 26 women, ranging in age from 20 to 33, were enrolled in the course. Some sat without pencil or paper while others straightened folders of paper and rows of crayons, markers and pens.

By the final day two weeks ago, eight women had completed the program. The rest either had been released or had been sentenced to jail terms and moved to other facilities. Of the eight women, all but two had been charged with crimes related to drug addiction.

"Three-quarters of the charges are because of drugs. Some of them are back three or four times while I have been in here," said Robin Collins, who has been at the correctional center since being charged with distribution of cocaine on Feb. 23.

Collins, who has been sentenced and will leave to complete a 10-year mandatory sentence without parole on Oct. 1, has two daughters ages 8 and 3. She has not seen them since she was arrested because, she said, "it would take too much out of me."

Collins has been through the program twice and said that though she will not be out of prison until her daughters are much older, she is thankful the program has shown her the importance of motherhood.

"You don't realize how much you miss them, like you don't miss your water till the well is dry," she said. "I thank God for this program because other girls that don't have to go through what I have to when I leave might learn, and then it will help."

"We are dealing with women who are bright, articulate and aware but are lacking self-esteem, self-respect and self-worth. They are taking a positive step, but they are also very weary," said Smithers. "Helping one another and trusting one another is a totally new concept for them, because they are children themselves. Emotionally their ages run from 11 to 16."

On the final Friday, the eight women watched from the window to see when the six children visiting would arrive. Once they saw them from across the yard, they sat down in their chairs; some of them combed their hair.

Debra O'Connor's 5-year-old son, Sean, ran to his mother, wrapping his arms around her waist. Pulling back and examining her, he screamed, "Mom, do you get to keep those shoes?" O'Connor laughed as another inmate handed her 13-week-old Jarrett. As she held her infant son for the first time since July 4 -- when she was charged with possession of cocaine with her husband -- she smiled and said, "It's a pleasure. It's a relief."