Basement becomes a high-tech office for female inmates

Training program offers hope, skills to seven participants

October 14, 2001|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

The corporate-looking, crisply air-conditioned basement room of a building in Jessup holds seven of the most reliable employees any manager could want. They are going nowhere any time soon, and they love their work.

Her long, red-painted nails clacking on the keyboard one recent afternoon, 25-year-old Melissa Fisher quietly and efficiently pieced together interior office plans using a computer drafting program, the AutoCAD 2000.

"It's the best job I've ever had, even though I'm in jail," Fisher said, her eyes fixed on a computer screen filled with dozens of neon blocks that symbolize pieces of office furniture.

Fisher represents something new in Maryland crime and punishment - a slowly emerging effort to give prisoners more viable work skills, often in high-tech fields, before they are released from prison.

Helping prisoners secure useful job skills has become an important priority as the nation confronts enormous waves of newly released prisoners - 585,400 of them in 2000, according to Bureau of Justice statistics.

"People have started to realize that prisoners don't stay prisoners forever," said Doris Layton MacKenzie, a professor of criminology at University of Maryland, College Park.

"They're realizing it's worthwhile to rehabilitate prisoners before they come back into the community," she said.

In January, Maryland prison officials chose seven inmates to work in State Use Industries' new design plant, housed at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women.

State Use Industries, an arm of the Maryland Division of Correction, began offering jobs to prisoners in the 1940s, funded by the revenue - $38 million in fiscal year 2001 - that it generates.

The agency sent these seven drafting employees to work normal business hours in the office in the prison's basement.

In its nine months of operation, the drafting program has turned out more than 200 drawings and has brought in about $1.7 million, said Joseph C. Sommerville, sales manager for State Use Industries.

Colorado is the only other state that uses AutoCAD in a prison setting, Sommerville said.

Computer drafting is the newest addition to State Use Industries' roster of jobs, which includes standbys such as furniture making and meat slicing.

"We are basically running a business in a prison setting," said Steve Shiloh, State Use general manager. He said the client base for prisoner-made products is limited by law to government and nonprofit agencies.

State Use managers said they chose the design employees, who are serving sentences for crimes ranging from assault to first-degree murder, for their creativity, work ethic and computer knowledge.

About a month ago, Fisher and another employee graduated from working on single-office layouts to capital projects, which are interior layouts for entire office buildings.

Susan F. Lauer, design plant manager, said she tries to make the job experience as realistic and professional as possible.

The women's office is a small room with white walls. Each employee sits at a desk made by other work outfits tied to State Use Industries.

"There's a lot of times this doesn't feel like a prison, but you have to keep that in mind at all times," Lauer said.

She said she has not had any security or safety problems in the plant.

With her right hand still poised on the mouse, Fisher glanced at printouts of office plans strewn across her desk.

"The client wants all of this stuff done, but they do not have the room," she said. She launched into a description of the ideal office space.

Fisher earned her GED certificate in prison about a year ago, and now she is holding down a job that - if she were not in prison - would pay her a starting salary of about $30,000. The women in the program make about $120 each month.

Lauer, who worked as a civilian designer at State Use Industries' headquarters for about three years before becoming manager of the design plant, said the women should have no trouble finding jobs when they are released from prison.

"Each time we tried to hire a designer, we ran into problems finding someone with enough AutoCAD experience," she said. "It's a great thing for them [the inmates] to learn."

MacKenzie, who evaluates correctional programs, said the trend toward giving prisoners usable job skills probably stemmed from a push for prisoner drug rehabilitation that began about 10 years ago.

"Starting with drug treatment, it became obvious that there are things we can do to rehabilitate prisoners," MacKenzie said.

Viable job skills, she said, are of particular importance to women in prison, who often are single parents.

"They need to have a way to support themselves and their families, or they will be likely to end up back in prison," she said.

Monica Cooper, 35, another inmate in the program, called the design plant the best thing to happen to the women's prison. She said the program has literally changed the way she looks at things.

"Now I look at pictures of the Ravens' stadium, and I wonder, `What great mind did the blueprint for that?'" she said. "I'm constantly measuring windows and door frames in my head."

Both Cooper and Fisher, the only two women who would agree to be interviewed, said the drafting program gives them the feeling of normality, something they have long sought.

"It's very rewarding to be working on something that might be worth $20,000 or so, and to actually have the client buy my drawings," Fisher said, bringing her hand to her heart. "You're like, `They bought my drawings!' ... It feels so good."

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