Laying groundwork for life after prison

Job skills: Preparing inmates for the work force after their release could make the difference.

June 19, 2000

MARYLAND PRISON officials want to get rid of Jermaine Bishop -- for good.

Bishop is approaching the end of an eight-month stint in prison for a drug conviction. Cross your fingers. His outcome could show whether a year-old program to reduce recidivism is working. The 24-year-old, like many other convicts, will soon be back on the street facing the inevitable fork in the road.

He could get a job, get his high school diploma and never look back toward the drab prison complex in Baltimore where he is confined. Or he could return there on a third conviction.

The penal system doesn't rehabilitate, but it must steer inmates like Bishop in the right direction. That's why the state's Prison-to-Work program is so important. The program is run by the Maryland State Department of Education, the Governor's Council on Management and Productivity and the state Division of Correction. Public Safety Secretary Stuart O. Simms pushed for it.

Prison-to-Work includes academics and job training. It aims to get 200 inmates into stable jobs that will help keep them honest and productive.

Harbor no illusions: Some ex-convicts are almost sure bets to return to the system, no matter how much help they get, prison officials say. Illiteracy is a high hurdle for some. But people like Bishop can be saved.

So last Wednesday, prison officials brought 13 executives from the private sector -- 40 businesses have signed up to help -- into the Metropolitan Transition Center (the new name of the former Maryland Penitentiary). The executives went behind prison walls to conduct mock job interviews with Bishop and 41 other inmates.

Before the interviews, the inmates received a written list of tips, including:

Smile: Look like a pleasant person.

Be able to discuss your career goals and how you plan to reach them.

Answer the question, "Have you ever been incarcerated?" in a straightforward way. Don't give all the details, but don't appear to be hiding anything. Use this question as an opportunity to tell the interviewer all the positive things you've done while incarcerated -- the programs you've taken, school, etc.

Bishop wore a T-shirt, a short Afro hairstyle and gold caps on his front teeth. In his two mock interviews, he explained that he had worked at a Towson restaurant before his conviction but wants a career in carpentry or commercial art. He wants to get his diploma and stay away from bad situations.

That promise needs a solid foundation. A steady job.

Prison-to-Work brought the private sector to help Bishop and others with the ulterior motive that some employers might hire inmates. But the program's shortcoming is its woefully small size. It reaches only a fraction of the roughly 8,000 Maryland inmates released each year.

More prison-private sector partnerships could expand this effort and give short-time inmates the preparation that could make the difference between success and recidivism.

To give Bishop and others like him a fair shot at life outside a jail cell is something we should all support.

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