Howard prisoners put to work on outside jobs Plan aims to ease re-entry into society

July 10, 1998|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Under the burning sun, three men are weeding plants outside Howard County's Bureau of Utilities. The heat doesn't seem to bother them, nor the work, nor the fact that they don't get paid.

They are inmates at the county jail, and all that matters to them is that they are out of the jail, in a program where they can learn to use new tools and get what could be a good job reference in the future.

The program, run with the Department of Public Works, is part of a new jail plan to better prepare inmates for returning to society.

Howard County Detention Center Director Melanie C. Pereira wants to shift inmates gradually from work inside the jail to work outside, then home detention and, finally, release.

"It's a mind-set," Pereira said. "We're trying to teach people to be personally responsible for themselves."

Started in April, the labor program has five inmates assigned to the public works agency. They help county employees in such tasks as repairing fire hydrants and painting snow plows.

The rules are strict: They can't have contact with the general public, operate a motor vehicle, make phone calls or receive visitors. They are monitored by county supervisors, who check on them every 15 minutes.

County officials say the program has two benefits: free labor and job training.

The inmates have performed 215 work hours -- or $5,722 worth of work -- for free. But the inmates don't put a price on getting a chance to work outside the confines of the detention center.

"I learned to run a jackhammer. I learned to use tools I didn't even know the names of," said Steve, 23, who wanted only his first name used. "Other than the fact that we were in the detention center, once people get over that, this is an excellent reference."

A 'powerful tool'

The importance of teaching skills and developing a work ethic is not a new idea. Leonard A. Sipes Jr., spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said such programs have proved vital to curbing the rate of repeat offenders. Inmates who have jobs on release or get them soon after are far less likely to end up in the system again.

"It's an extremely powerful tool," Sipes said. "Where it can be done, it should be done."

What's different about Howard County's program is that it provides gradual steps. When Pereira came to the detention center, there were two work options: in-house jobs or work release, in which inmates hold paying jobs in the community but return to jail at night.

The new labor program serves as a middle step between in-house and work-release jobs. Home detention, which Pereira hopes to have in place by August, would complete the plan.

Mike Hendricks, work release coordinator at the jail, said the new program gives him the opportunity to observe inmates working before granting them greater freedom on a work-release schedule. About 35 inmates are on work release now.

Providing a work ethic

It "provides a work ethic. If they don't make it here, they are not going to make it on work release," Hendricks said.

Pereira recently received funding for a home detention program to buy electronic monitors so jail officials can keep tabs on inmates. She said inmates on work release or home detention sometimes forget they are technically incarcerated and ignore the rules, even falling back into their old ways on the street.

She hopes that her program of gradual change will help them build skills and handle freedom better.

"All of these people are going back into society," Pereira said. "What better way to teach them a work ethic?"

Pub Date: 7/10/98

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