Take an inmate's word: Tour Md. If prisons win tourism contract, travel tips will come from cells

September 03, 1992|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Annapolis Bureau

ANNAPOLIS -- Find out about the wonders of Maryland -- from someone who has not seen them for five to 10 years.

If prison officials have their way, tourists interested in Maryland will hear how captivating the state can be by talking to female inmates.

Supposedly, callers wouldn't realize that the courteous voice explaining the excitement of the Inner Harbor or the beauty of the Eastern Shore belonged to a prisoner.

Officials who run a program that relies on prison labor hope to win a state tourism contract when it comes up for bid soon, said Leonard A. Sipes, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

The prison-affiliated State Use Industries hopes to submit the lowest bid during the coming months and begin promoting Maryland next June, Mr. Sipes said.

Private businesses are also expected to vie for the work, which is administered by the state's economic development agency.

State Use Industries is prepared to train about two dozen inmates to answer tourists' questions about sights, special events, restaurants and attractions in Maryland. The prisoners would be fully briefed even though they would not bespeaking from personal travel experience, he said.

Suppose someone called the state's toll-free tourism line to discuss taking Interstate 95 through Maryland on the way to the nation's capital, he said.

"The inmate would say, 'Oh, you can't go through the state without going to the Inner Harbor off I-95 in Baltimore,' " he said.

"The person would have no idea he was talking to inmates within a correctional institution," Mr. Sipes said confidently.

He knows that to be true, he said, because citizens are unknowingly talking to inmates right now.

The Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup has a trained team of telemarketers hired by organizations to make telephone solicitations, he said.

State Use Industries is perhaps best known for using inmate labor to make automobile license plates.

Inmate workers also provide goods and services for government agencies and charities, ranging from meat cutting to manufacturing computers and furniture.

"Every stick of furniture in my office is made by inmates," Mr. Sipes said proudly.

"We have a problem with idleness inside prisons, and these programs are self-supporting and don't cost the taxpayer any money," he said.

Isn't winning the tourism contract a foregone conclusion, a reporter asks, since the inmate workers only earn a buck or two a day?

(They also earn credits that help them shave time off their sentences.)

Although private companies could not pay such bargain-basement wages to their employees, Mr. Sipes said, State Use Industries must spend more than businesses do on supervising its workers, who are, after all, inmates.

Bishop Robinson, the secretary of public safety and corrections, said he does not envision prisoners going so far as working as travel agents, making reservations and the like.

However, according to Mr. Sipes, at least one other state has such a program.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.