Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker and officials from the Prince George’s County Correctional Facility made a trip to Capitol Heights Elementary on June 1 to celebrate the successful completion of another year of the Correctional Officers Protecting and Educating Students (COPES) program.

“This program is very important to my administration as my kids participated in it,” said Baker. “This helps kids gain the confidence to stay off of drugs, stay out of trouble and do the right things.”

The program was the brainchild of the correctional officer’s union, which wanted to come up with a way to reach out to the community. So they designed a program that would allow them to reach out to sixth-graders, expanding to fifth-graders later on, to warn them about the troubles of peer pressure and the consequences making the wrong decision could entail.

In doing so, they attempted to show the kids the reality of jail without physically taking students there. So they brought homemade knives made by inmates to show the students the seriousness of jail life.

Capitol Heights Elementary School’s six-week program did exactly what the program was designed to as evidenced by the speakers on June 1. The correctional officers made it their duty to let the students know the consequences their actions would cause if they did the wrong thing. At the ceremony, the officers accomplished this by getting input from the students on what they learned this year from tactics to combat peer pressure, bullying and taking drugs.

However, the topic that dominated the ceremony was gangs, as the students asked several questions about what kind of gangs there were and why people joined gangs.

The correctional officers took turns addressing the issue saying that right now there are over 100 gangs in Prince George’s County, but they said that they have a different kind of task policing inmates in the jail. They said that most inmates join gangs for protection so they have to pay special attention to them to know how they dress, talk or have any discernible tattoos to let them know what gang they belong to. They said this way they can try to alleviate any issues before they start.

Mary Lou McDonough, director of the correctional center, said kids’ fascination with gangs is fueled by much more than the proliferation of gangs in Prince George’s County or in the correctional facility. She says it has as much to do with the media the kids are exposed to as anything else.

“I think what you see is gangs are oftentimes sensationalized in the media and sometimes that adds to all of our jobs,” McDonough said after the ceremony. “We have to combat that and make sure we’re honest about the problem, but give kids solutions on how to deal with gangs.”

The program is currently in play at three elementary schools in the county. McDonough says they’re looking for ways to try to expand it, but it is difficult right now with the time and staffing constraints the department is facing.