Hard labor

September 07, 2005

THE MARYLAND Correctional Training Center in Hagerstown has been putting men to work for four decades. The prison was built to educate inmates and teach them masonry, plumbing and other trades so they could get a job when they got out -- and presumably stay out. That mission has taken on an urgency today as corrections officials in Maryland and nationally seek to curb the return of millions of ex-offenders to prison. The medium-security prison's nine training workshops can teach a man to build a brick wall, repair an air conditioning system, even design a Web site. Addictions and social ills are still the big problem, stoking criminality and impeding an ex-offender's chance at a crime-free life. But focusing on those issues without addressing job skills and job placement is a job half-done.

MCTC is at the forefront of the Ehrlich administration's prison reform initiative, Re-entry Enforcement Services Targeting Addiction Rehabilitation and Treatment (Restart). But corrections departments here and across the country will have to also offer job placement services if they want to ensure inmates will use their skills and double-digit recidivism rates will be cut.

Ex-offenders face considerable obstacles upon release: Finding housing and fighting an addiction are among the most basic. In Maryland's reform initiative, drug treatment and education are integral first steps to changing outcomes for inmates. Job training is a big third. An inmate who can read and write, has tamed his addiction and has learned a masonry skill has a better chance at a stable, crime-free life. Andre Scott, 31, a convicted murderer caught up in the fast money and allure of the drug trade, has learned the value of hard work by laying brick at MCTC. "I have no interest in living how I used to live," he says. "To think I can go out and do the same thing with a different end is crazy."

His experience underscores the need for a comprehensive approach to slowing recidivism. The Maryland initiative operates in only two prisons and is restricted to inmates convicted of certain crimes who are within 48 months of their release. At MCTC, Restart has meant more counselors, a schedule of night classes to instruct more inmates and better coordination between case managers and parole and probation agents. Corrections officials not only are working within prisons to reduce recidivism, they are also trying to revamp state licensing requirements that can hinder employment of ex-offenders and to establish one-stop career centers to market ex-offenders.

But there's more to be done. At Louisiana's Hunt Correctional Facility, for example, a welding program has followed closely the training regime of a local shipyard, the largest employer in the area that recruits applicants from behind the prison walls. It's the kind of partnership that Maryland should actively develop.

Employing this chronically unemployed population isn't just about decreasing prison populations and the millions spent on supporting them. It's about reducing crime, reuniting families and strengthening communities.

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