The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Saturday June 3rd

Student Gives Time To Inmates' Lives

HILLSBOROUGH - Eight men sit in an oval of desks in a small room. Their figures dwarf the blue, yellow and red plastic chairs and undersized wooden desk tops. A green chalkboard dominates one wall, while posters of nature scenes mark the others.

The bright images of leaves and flowers and outside light pouring through windows should lift the occupants' spirits, but for the group gathered here, it is a tough task.

Every Tuesday and Thursday, Paul Lee enters the room with the hope of reaching this goal. Lee, a junior political science and English major from Weaverville, leads a counseling group for the mentally handicapped inmates at the Orange Correctional Center.

He travels to Hillsborough twice a week for the APPLES component of his political science class, "Ethics, Morality, Individual Liberty and the Law."

The class requires students to perform three to five hours of community service a week at a public or nonprofit institution.

Lee said his experiences on the other side of the barbed wire and locked gate have given him an opportunity not possible in any classroom or lecture hall. He gives people hope.

"I am working with a group of people society has given up on, and many times, they have given up on themselves," Lee said. "I think they see a lot of hope in me, and it rubs off on them."

Lee, who signed on to volunteer with limited training, leads goal-oriented sessions on Tuesdays to help the men work through problems that range from fellow inmates waking them up to alcoholism and drug addiction.

On Thursdays, he lightens up the mood and shows movies applicable to the men. So far, they have watched "Patch Adams" and "The Hurricane." Through these one-hour sessions, Lee said he has fostered unique relationships with the group members.

"I really enjoy the connections I make with these guys," he said. "A lot of them are really starting to trust me and come to me with problems. Any time I draw something special out of these guys, it really means a lot to me."

The correctional center is a minimum security prison, but there are still violent criminals held in the facility. Lee might work with men convicted of murder or other serious charges. These convictions, in addition to their mental disabilities and drug addictions, make for limited common ground with Lee.

"At first, I thought `How am I going to relate to these people,' but they are so starved for attention and people to care about them, they immediately opened up to me, and I felt at ease," Lee said.

With a prison population of more than 300, the two permanent psychologists and one social worker on staff are not able to provide mental health treatment sessions like Lee's group offers, said Melanie Morgan, a staff psychologist at the prison.

"This is much more of an enriching experience than they would have had just left on their own," Morgan said.

"They learn from each other, learn from Paul and from all the interactions in the group."

Lee said he also learns from his experiences with the group. Whether it is the sometimes emotional mood-sharing at the beginning of the session or when he requires the inmates to compliment each other at the end, Lee said he gains something from each session.

"I am learning to interact with a group of people I never would have gotten to know otherwise," he said. "It is good to get exposure to a different side of the world."

Lee said his time at the prison is much more than exposure and a class grade to him.

He shares about his own life just as the men share about their family visits, money problems and approaching release dates.

"We joke and laugh and kid," he said. "I hope they see me as their friend because that is what I am there to be."

And when Lee's class ends, he said he hopes to continue his involvement with the group. He said he believes in the men and what they can accomplish if given a little hope.

"No matter how old you are or how set in your ways, people have a way to turn themselves around," Lee said. "We should never give up on anyone."

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