Inmates put skills to work building house for a family that has none

June 08, 1993|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,Staff Writer

In the yard at Patuxent Institution yesterday, Stephen Johnson watched as a crane hoisted a modular house onto a flatbed truck.

Johnson, 38, a convicted murderer who's served 10 years of a 50-year sentence at the Jessup prison, was especially relieved to see the house make a safe landing.

He and nine other inmates built the house last summer as part of a vocational program run by the state Division of Correction.

The construction crew applauded as the three-bedroom rancher narrowly cleared the prison gates and headed for a Dorsey Road neighborhood where it will become a home for a moderate-income family in Howard County.

For Johnson and other crew members, the project was a way to prove they have the potential to become productive citizens.

"Most of the guys in here have been takers most of their lives," Johnson said. "This is a way of saying we're sorry and trying to give something back by more than just doing time."

The inmate construction project at Patuxent is thought to be the first of its kind in the country, said state officials.

With a $70,000 loan from the county, the Howard County Housing Commission, the county's public housing agency, bought the house for $28,000 from State Use Industries, the vocational arm of the state Division of Correction. The commission will use the rest of the money to transport and install the three-bedroom house and finish on-site construction.

The home had sat in the prison yard since it was completed last fall because county housing officials couldn't find a site for it. In January, the commission paid $40,000 for a parcel in a residential neighborhood on Dorsey Road in the Baltimore-Washington International Airport noise zone, said Leonard Vaughan, county housing director.

The total cost of the project, including the land and the house, came to about $115,000, Mr. Vaughan said.

He expects the home to be occupied by August. The occupant family will be selected from the county's subsidized housing waiting list, which has about 800 applicants.

Eligible families must make less than $37,680, 80 percent of the Baltimore area median income, and the rent will be 30 percent of the tenant's monthly income.

The commission will provide an annual rent rebate and encourage the family to put the money toward a down payment on the modular home.

Mr. Vaughan said that the workmanship on the house was equal to or better than other modular construction he's seen, so good that the Housing Commission plans to buy at least two more houses through the inmate construction program. He said the estimated market value of the modular home is between $130,000 and $135,000.

"The gentlemen who worked on the house put a lot of special effort into it," Mr. Vaughan said. "I think they're trying to prove through their workmanship that they can be a positive part of society again."

This goal was spelled out in a message carved into a wooden plank, which was attached to another house built by the inmates for Prince George's County's housing agency, which will be moved to a site in a few weeks.

The message reads: This House is Dedicated to the Peoples Lives We Have Affected.

Michael Owens, like many of the inmates who served on the construction crew, hopes someday to put his skills to use outside of prison.

"I'm hoping this will increase my job opportunities when I get back out on the street again," said Owens, 35, who's served eight years of a 45-year sentence for second-degree murder.

Steven J. Sears, site supervisor for State Use Industries, said the inmates took extra steps to ensure that the house would be high-quality.

For example, the house has more insulation, braces and caulking than required.

"If it wasn't done right we ripped it apart and did it again," Johnson said.

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