Jail's labor program fills inmates with fresh air, hope for job after release

September 11, 1994|By Elaine Tassy | Elaine Tassy,Sun Staff Writer

Marlin Evans wakes up about 5 a.m. weekdays and goes to the city Towing Division on Pulaski Highway to clean, pick up garbage, paint or cut the grass.

He earns $1 a day. But for someone who's doing time, it's better than nothing, he said.

"I've always been an active person," said Mr. Evans, 35. "I can't sit still not doing nothing. It eases my mind; it gives me something to do."

He is in a Baltimore City Detention Center program that allows some inmates to spend the day doing maintenance work in the Towing Division, Inner Harbor, Central Garage or Druid Hill Park.

The Resident Labor Program, housed in a two-story building on Graves Street in the Detention Center complex downtown, began 11 years ago and has about 100 male inmates. A few are awaiting sentencing, and the rest have sentences of up to eight months for nonviolent crimes such as breaking and entering, traffic violations or not paying child support, said Keith Shortridge, who directs the program.

"It's very attractive to inmates," Mr. Shortridge said. "They don't want to be cooped up and locked down."

Most participants are working class, but they span the socio-economic spectrum. Company presidents and horse farm and restaurant owners have worked next to repeat offenders and homeless people who use prison for shelter, he said.

On a typical day, laborers get up early, clean their dormitory rooms, then have breakfast about 6 a.m. By 7:45 a.m., they are out on their sites in orange jumpsuits with "Baltimore City Detention Center" printed on the back. In teams of six or seven, the workers are supervised all day by a correctional officer.

"Basically, it cuts your time in half, and it takes all the tension out of being locked in all day long," said Anthoni E. Jones, 31, who has been working this summer on the Central Garage detail.

"We go through the aisles and clean up around the mechanics and all, keep the place nice and neat . . . we use brooms, shovels, we put some Absorb-All down to pick up the oil that's on the ground."

L He said he and his co-workers also painted the whole garage.

"It's getting some fresh air in your lungs and getting back into your own environment," said Mr. Jones, who is awaiting trial on an attempted breaking and entering charge.

Mr. Evans, a high school dropout who is the father of two, agreed that the work keeps his spirits from sinking. He said he was arrested on charges of possession of drugs with the intent to distribute, but has not been tried.

He was sent to the Resident Labor program in February and has stripped motorcycles, emptied trash cans and cleaned bathrooms at the Towing Division since March.

"It helps me a lot really," Mr. Evans said. "At one time, I didn't know where to turn. I was tired of running the streets." He said he wants to get a job there when he gets out of the center.

"They perform a good service for us," said C. Frederick Raynor, superintendent of the Towing Division. "They seem eager to perform. I had them paint the inside of my office, and I swear they didn't spill a drop of paint on the rug. If you ask them to do anything, it seems like they are happy to do it."

Mr. Raynor said some laborers from the program have asked him about employment later. Although there is a city hiring freeze, he said if laborers can get the necessary towing operator's license and have their names placed on the civil service list, he would interview them.

Mr. Evans and other workers toil all morning except during a 15-minute break. Lunch is delivered at noon in brown paper bags. After lunch they work until about 3 p.m., when a van takes them back to the center in time for dinner.

In the evenings, the inmates can exercise, receive visitors or do other recreational or educational activities.

"By the time their day is complete, all they want to do is take a shower and go to bed," said Mr. Shortridge. He said those who have had a chance to expend their energy laboring are easier for correctional officers to supervise.

"The more time we can have them working or involved in something, the more safe the environment is because they are preoccupied with positive things instead of finding ways to abuse each other or escape from the building," he said.

But not everyone who wants to can go out and work, because there are only about 60 slots. Also, some people do not meet the requirements, such as showing in their first two weeks that they can follow directions and having a bail that is less than $5,000.

Some inmates who don't go outside work at other spots within the Detention Center; others languish on their bunks.

George Kingsbury, 35, whose bail was more than $5,000, said he wished he could work outside instead of in the detention center's commissary.

"The only time I get to go outside is when I go to court," he said.

Besides getting fresh air, inmates said working makes them less likely to return to crime.

"If you're working . . . you're going to be used to waking up early in the morning. You're going to want to do things," said Carl Brown, 24, who recently finished the program after serving a sentence for a handgun violation. "If you sit around and do nothing, when you come home [from jail], you sit around and do nothing, and then do stupid stuff and get locked right back up."

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