Prisoners Aid Association to expand service with 'shelter plus care' program Agency offers housing, counseling to ex-offenders

March 03, 1996|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

The Prisoners Aid Association of Maryland Inc. -- one of the state's oldest social service agencies and one with a somewhat misleading name -- plans to expand its work of housing and counseling ex-offenders.

The association plans to broaden its housing program in cooperation with the Mayor's Office on Homeless Services, said Joseph A. Lochte Jr., executive director.

Prisoners Aid, at 2000 N. Calvert St., provides housing of up to 30 days in a shelter on East Lanvale Street and has bought three other area houses on East 20th Street to convert into longer-term facilities.

In a "shelter plus care" program run by a case-management worker, the three buildings would be used for newly released prisoners as well as ex-offenders who have been out of prison and homeless awhile.

Prisoners Aid will continue to provide job preparation and referrals, sending some clients to job-training programs. But it also wants to train clients, Mr. Lochte says. One possibility being considered is to train banquet servers and waiters to work for a catering company in the federal empowerment zone.

"Our general mission here is to get these people stabilized so they don't go back to jail," said Mr. Lochte, who has spent almost two decades at the association. "All of us want to feel in some way we contribute to the general improvement of things."

The association, more than 125 years old, bears a somewhat misleading name stemming from its beginnings in 1869, when members worked for better conditions for inmates.

The nonprofit agency has long since moved into finding jobs and temporary housing for ex-offenders, not prisoners. But, its leaders question whether a more accurate name would be worth trading for a venerable title well-known to many old-timers.

Still, Mr. Lochte regularly hears comments like that from a recent critic, who asked, "Are you [the association] letting those horrible fiends out on the street and using my United Way money to do this?"

Prisoners Aid, which works with agencies such as the Department of Parole and Probation and various nonprofit organizations, is one of the few places to which ex-prisoners find someone waiting to listen and perhaps act in their behalf.

Daily, from its redbrick house on Calvert Street, Mr. Lochte and six other staffers see up to 15 ex-offenders, probationers or halfway house residents who walk in off the street, many looking to follow a new path. Some succeed, some don't.

They are largely city men who have done an average of 18 to 36 months on assault, drug and other, lesser charges. Officials said they stand a better chance of moving usefully back into society and are more likely to be hired than long-term prisoners.

Trying to find a job is the main reason the newly released prisoners come. "We saw about 1,000 new clients last [fiscal] year," said Michael Brown, an employment counselor who advises, assesses job skills and conducts Friday workshops on getting jobs.

"Of 800 who applied for employment in fiscal 1995, we placed 320 in jobs. Of that number, 40 percent are still working. And, since July, we've placed another 113 people in jobs."

The figures may not be overwhelming, but officials said the stigma of jail time, the tight employment market, a range of job skills and the varying intensity of personal determination are contributing factors.

Dr. Robert Clinkscale, association president and director of the Woodbourne Academy, said, "Some do stick in jobs. We offer coaching and have an umbrella approach to see people on the job site."

He said in the past six or seven years, the number of ex-offenders with drug backgrounds has doubled from about 30 to 35 percent of the total seen at Calvert Street to 60 to 70 percent. Association workers say regrettably that most walk-ins never come back to say thanks. Some return to jail. An accurate count is not known because the staff is stretched.

Some ex-offenders stay out of trouble and are extremely grateful. A man rushed up to Mr. Brown at a flea market on Patapsco Avenue recently and thanked him for helping him find work as a carpenter's apprentice.

Another ex-convict was appreciative when Mr. Brown steered him toward a vocational rehabilitation program that led to his entering law school. And Mr. Lochte was thanked for the help he gave a North Carolina man who settled down, started a family and got a job in that state.

Prisoner Aid was founded by Goldsborough Griffith, a Baltimore rug merchant, who, inspired by religious feelings, started the association in 1869 at the Friends' Meeting House. For years before that he had worked with Maryland prisoners in Bible reading and other sessions. The General Assembly granted the group a special charter in 1874.

Why help ex-prisoners for 18 years as Mr. Lochte has and 14 years as Mr. Brown has? Mr. Lochte noted the need to reduce recidivism and encourage stability in people's lives.

C7 "One less criminal on the street," Mr. Brown added.

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