Beyond the racks of fancy jams, the fresh fish on ice and the cases of pastries at Gourmet Again in Pikesville, Herbert Keys stands in his apron and plastic gloves making sandwiches and slicing pounds of meat and cheese for his customers.
It is a welcome change of scenery for Keys to be spending time behind the deli counter instead of behind bars.
Keys, who has faced drug charges and said he recently spent 10 months in jail, came to the Pikesville caterer and gourmet grocery through a work-release program. He is one of a half-dozen Gourmet Again employees who were hired the same way.
"My bosses, my manager, they're all good people," said Keys, adding that the job allows him to support two daughters, 11 and 12. "They gave me a chance, and I appreciate it. I'm not going to let them down."
About 15,000 inmates are released each year from prisons in Maryland, according to the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. But with the job market already tight and many businesses reluctant to hire workers with a criminal record, former offenders are up against more than the typical odds when it comes to finding employment. More than half wind up back in jail.
"They're suffering under a double strain: one is the stigma of their past and the other is the lack of jobs, even for those who don't have a record," said Jacqueline Lampell, a spokeswoman for the department. "So it is doubly difficult for offenders to find work in this economy. There's no question."
Gourmet Again is one of four companies to be honored at a breakfast today thanking businesses that hire former offenders and paying tribute to some of those who work for them.
The other companies are K&W Finishing Inc., a Baltimore printing, finishing and binding company; Holly Poultry Inc. in Baltimore; and P.T. O'Malley Lumber Co. Inc. in North Point in Baltimore County.
Michael Barnes, a carpenter, and Donna Ryckman, a waitress, will also be honored for turning their lives around.
Mary Ann Saar, secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services; Mayor Martin O'Malley; and Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. will be guest speakers at the event, which aims to convince employers of the positives in hiring former offenders.
"We often times don't recognize that people have a lot of talents, a lot of skills and also can bring something to the workplaces," said Karen Sitnick, director of the Mayor's Office of Employment Development. "And we're hoping to encourage employers to see that this is a resource, that these individuals are ready to work."
The mayor has organized a task force to study the challenges facing inmates released from jail. The city has a large stake in the issue, with about 9,000 former offenders returning or moving to Baltimore each year.
"They have an arrest record and it's like the scarlet letter on their forehead that now many employers won't hire them because of their record," said Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation and a mentor to former offenders. "And that means they have no income, and they have to live, so they resort to illegal alternatives, some of them do, not all of them ... and they end up back in prison."
It is in society's best interest to train those workers and treat them "as individuals, not as a cursed class," he said.
Gourmet Again began hiring former offenders several years ago after the workers they found through advertisements would come in late and were not loyal. "We just decided there has to be someone out there who wants a job," said Lisa Honick, the store's executive chef.
Honick said the former offenders hired by the Baltimore County store are hard-working and reliable, and never call in sick.
Roger Young, the plant manager at P.T. O'Malley Lumber Co., had similar compliments for the workers his company hired through the Baltimore County Bureau of Corrections Work Release Program. His company, which manufactures wooden pallets, boxes and crates, has been hiring former offenders for about 20 years. Eight of its 100 employees came from the work release program.
"We thought it was a great thing," Young said. "If other companies would ask me how the program's been working for me, I would have only good things to say about it."
Aside from finding a new labor pool for businesses, Baltimore County officials said there is another motivation to get former offenders working: to help them pay child support.
A recent county study of 145 people who had not paid child support for at least two years found that more than 60 percent of them had prior arrests. Finding work for those fathers and mothers can only help alleviate child-support problems, said Sheryl Goldstein, criminal justice coordinator for Baltimore County.
"There's a real strong interest in trying to find ways for them to become employed," she said.
The Maryland corrections department has begun an initiative to help return former offenders to society, dubbed RESTART (Re-entry, Enforcement and Services Targeting Addiction, Rehabilitation and Treatment). Its goal is to prepare inmates as much as possible to re-enter society and make positive contributions to their families and communities.
Michael Barnes, 46, was able to find work in construction after being released from prison. The benefits of giving people like him a second chance are two-fold, he said.
Businesses, he said, "don't know that we have the ability to make life easy for employers or people in the community after we paid our debt to society."
Sun researcher Jean Packard contributed to this article.