Though it probably wasn't the first time they'd been told that "a split-second choice can change everything," students at Haddon Township High School were sent that message powerfully Friday from those who know firsthand.

At the school's third presentation of Project P.R.I.D.E. (Promoting Responsibility in Drug Education) - just a week before the prom - students in grades nine through 12 heard the hard truth from three people behind bars for vehicular homicide.

"I took someone's life. The minute I got behind the wheel of my car, it became a weapon," said Chris, an inmate at the Southern State Correctional Facility who recounted how an alcohol-induced choice to leave Atlantic City, rather than stay overnight, led to tragedy.

"Because of that one bad choice I made that night, I can't make choices anymore," he said.

Chris, 32, has 10 more months to serve of a four-year sentence for the drunken-driving accident that killed a female driver on the Atlantic City Expressway. At the time of the accident, he had been working as a mortgage broker. He never imagined winding up in prison, he said. He urged the students to make good choices "all the time."

"These people are not actors. This is not scripted," Michael Ritter, coordinator of specialized programs for the New Jersey Department of Corrections, told the predominantly student audience.

In addition to Chris, Ritter introduced two other tan-uniformed inmates, identified only by their first names and prison numbers.

Velmar, 48, was a model and actress who had just scored a role on Law and Order when, after drinking at a restaurant, she drove into an embankment, causing the death of her niece.

And Nicole, 22, is finishing a three-year sentence for a drunken-driving accident that killed a male driver.

None of the offenders had ever been in major trouble with the law before their accidents.

Nicole, who was left alone at a party while intoxicated, said she just wanted to get home - a five-minute trip.

"I didn't make it home," she said. "I woke up in the hospital."

The accident broke Nicole's femur in half, and she underwent three surgeries and four blood transfusions. It wasn't until after she left the intensive-care unit that she learned the collision had killed a 37-year-old man. It was the first time she had driven while drunk, she said.

"Think about my story," she told the students. "It can happen. It can happen to anybody."

Velmar, who, like Nicole, is serving a three-year term at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Hunterdon County, was blunt with the audience: "You do not want to be where we are today. We're with murderers, rapists, baby killers . . . we live among them," she said.

Project P.R.I.D.E., which Ritter helped initiate in 1998, gives presentations at New Jersey schools, colleges, churches, and courthouses four or five days each week. In addition to drunken-driving offenders, its speakers have included minimum-security inmates arrested for robbery and drug-related crimes.

The program originally was compared to the "Scared Straight" program, "where you would actually go into a prison," Ritter said. Aside from introducing people to inmates, he said, Project P.R.I.D.E. takes a much different approach.

"With Project P.R.I.D.E., we really want the focus on people that were like the kids in the audience," he said. "So [they] were basically good people that just made some poor choices."

Stefanie Cole, a senior at Haddon Township High School, said Project P.R.I.D.E. was a refreshing change from typical warnings.

"It touched me in a different way, because usually we're used to having our teachers or administrators telling us, 'Don't drink and drive. Do the safe thing,' " she said. "But having it come from [the inmates] is totally different, because they lived it."

About 10 of New Jersey's approximately 24,000 inmates volunteer with the program, according to Ritter, and each participant is strictly vetted.

"You essentially have to be a model inmate," he said.

Friday's speakers, who have all participated for about a year, said reaching out to people like the Haddon Township students helped them cope with the reality of their situation.

"I have a lot of pain from this and a lot of guilt, and this helps a lot because I feel like I'm honoring my victim's life," Nicole said.

She is scheduled to begin parole Friday but plans - as do the other inmates - to continue speaking publicly after she gets out.