Taking orders at the drive-through window or flipping burgers at the grill, the 44-year-old Baltimore grandmother does whatever needs to be done on the night shift at a McDonald's in Jessup.
When she finishes her shift, she waves goodbye to fellow employees heading home. Then she returns to jail.
The woman is one of 38 inmates in the Howard County Detention Center serving their sentences in the jail's work-release program. Inmates work at such local businesses as diners, hotels, fast-food restaurants, construction companies, dry cleaners, car-towing companies and auto body shops.
During the past 18 months, Howard County judges sentenced 282 inmates to work release.
Of these, seven inmates walked away from jail, and 58 had to be removed from the program for problems ranging from drug and alcohol use to not showing up for work.
Howard prison officials say the majority of the inmates on work release complete the program. Although work-release sentences average six months, many inmates get shorter terms, bringing constant turnover to the program.
Inmates are often placed in jobs through a work-release coordinator. Most work 40-hour weeks, but some elect to work overtime. Only inmates with no history of violent or sex crimes can enter the program unless ordered by courts.
In an expansion of the program this summer, county jail officials plan to use $20,000 in federal and state grants to start a home-detention program. Up to 10 inmates will work at outside jobs -- similar to work-release prisoners, except they will live at home.
Howard jail officials see the work-release program as an opportunity to provide rehabilitation at a time when much of the public looks to jails as places of punishment. Employers say they view it as a source of workers for low-wage jobs that often go begging in Howard County.
And for some inmates, it's been a path to their first jobs.
The woman at McDonald's -- who, like other prisoners interviewed for this article, would not allow her name to be used -- says her job persuaded her to turn her life around.
"It's miserable -- real depressing -- to be in jail," she says. "Anyone can make a mistake. The jail is just somewhere to sleep and get ready to roll out."
She is serving a one-year sentence for theft, her second such conviction in Howard County in less than two years.
"At first, I was a little ashamed to be on work release," the woman says, speaking from her cell in the jail's unit for women in the work-release program. "But I'm lucky to be in here, in a way. It's better than being in the [jail's] general population, where people are always getting into fights."
Almost everyone she works with at McDonald's knows she's on work release, she says. At first, she was ashamed to have to return to jail after work.
Now, it doesn't matter. She says she's pleased to arrive promptly for work and earn the minimum wage of $4.75. She says she has no intention of moving back to Baltimore -- back to her life of cocaine binges and stealing to support her habit -- when she is released from jail next month.
"My goal now is about getting my life together," she says. "Finally."
Sense of discipline
For jail officials and criminologists, this is the goal of work release -- to give inmates working-world skills, a sense of discipline and a commitment to working.
Dr. Sherrill Cheeks, clinical director of forensic psychiatry at Springfield Hospital Center in Sykesville and an expert on mental disorders of prison inmates, says some anecdotal evidence supports the notion that work-release inmates are less likely to become repeat offenders.
"Given the opportunity to have work release, inmates learn to measure the alternatives of being incarcerated 24 hours a day vs. having an opportunity to be productive," Cheeks says. "Repeat offenders don't have that. For them, being out of jail doesn't mean the same thing that it does for everyone else. The learning doesn't take place."
But some customers say work-release inmates make them uncomfortable.
"I really don't want someone with a criminal record to prepare my food," says an Annapolis man eating lunch in the McDonald's in Jessup, who asked not to be identified. "You wouldn't want a person with a criminal record to fly a jetliner. Are you going to let them fix your meal?"
Others disagree. Another McDonald's customer, Henry Ostman of Jessup, says it really doesn't matter whether jail inmates work in the community. "Everyone can make a mistake," he says. "But if they make another mistake, I guess they know where they're going."
Some employers call the jail looking for work-release inmates to employ, says Mike Hendricks, work-release coordinator for Howard County.
Elizabeth Spencer, personnel manager for the T.A. Baltimore South in Jessup -- the full-service truck stop formerly known as the Truckers Inn -- says she does not hesitate to hire work-release inmates.