Hire an ex-con, governor urges

May 11, 1994|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,Staff Writer

Gov. William Donald Schaefer asked business owners yesterday to help fight crime in a novel way -- by hiring former criminals. It was a tough pitch at a time when jobs are scarce and crime a common fear, but that didn't slow down Mr. Schaefer.

"You have to be committed," the governor told a breakfast gathering in Baltimore of 20 company presidents. "You have to say, 'I have to give those guys a chance.' If you are able to employ one person, you are saving taxpayers money. And if you don't, it's not going to work."

The governor came to town to push a job training center that teaches various skills to inmates as they approach the end of their prison terms. Housed in a renovated warehouse at 920 Forrest St. near the Maryland Penitentiary, the Occupational Skills Training Center opened early last year.

So far, the results are encouraging, state corrections officials say.

Of the 80 inmates who have graduated and been eligible for employment, at least 33 have found work, according to center director Kassidy Savage. Some have found entry-level jobs with auto care businesses, roof repair companies and telemarketing firms, Ms. Savage said. Most, though, are still looking for work.

Officials say only one graduate has been returned to prison, a woman who failed to show up at her telemarketing job while still on work release.

The Baltimore center brings together several job programs -- auto maintenance, graphics/printing, home improvement, office technology, warehousing, and heating, ventilation and air conditioning.

The handsome, $6 million facility gives inmates practical experience in a trade using sophisticated machinery, including $10,000 printing presses and Apple Macintosh computers. It also offers training in basic job-hunting skills, such as making appointments and interviewing.

Maryland's other training programs are scattered among 25 prisons statewide and inmates must often be shuttled about to take classes.

Altogether, the state has about 800 spaces for inmate job training -- not enough, corrections officials say, for a system that releases about 10,000 inmates each year.

At a time when public spending on prisons is soaring around the nation, even a small reduction in Maryland's 47 percent recidivism rate could save millions of dollars, said Leonard A. Sipes Jr., a spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. He added that the state has no illusions about job training programs, however.

"We do not want to mislead people," Mr. Sipes said. "We know full well that in many instances, even though they are properly prepared, they will recidivate."

While inmates in the Baltimore center seem excited to be learning skills, some concede that finding a job in the current economy won't be easy.

"I constantly worry about that," said Robert Coates, 24, who was imprisoned in 1988 for attempted murder. Coates has been studying home improvement and hopes to get a residential construction job when he is released next year.

Marvin Jenkins-Bey, 40, has been studying printing and graphic arts for the past six months. He spent the past week calling businesses looking for work in anticipation of his release in June.

No one has openings, he said, although some businesses are taking trainees.

Most of the business owners in attendance yesterday have hired inmates in the past. Several spoke well of the experience.

Doug Levene, president of Alylar Inc. in Baltimore, said he has employed more than 150 inmates in the past six years. Six supervisors in his chicken-boning operation are ex-convicts.

One named David spent 18 years in prison for rape, Mr. Levene said. The former convict now makes more than $40,000 a year supervising 75 people.

"I ask you to take a try," he told his colleagues. "I ask you to be patient."

Wayne Jones has been in jail since 1990 for drug dealing. Now 26, he's studying home improvement in hopes of getting some carpentry work when he becomes eligible for work release in November.

He acknowledges that the $8 an hour he hopes to make as a carpenter is a big step down from the $500 a week he said he made distributing crack. But he wants to eventually become a general contractor and make a good living.

"I can still have that," he says. "It will just take time. I'm going to have to work for it."

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