Ogdens gear up to get ex-cons in game of life

April 15, 2007|By DAN RODRICKS

I intend to live in Baltimore for a long time," Marques Ogden was saying yesterday morning, a couple of hours before a walk-through practice with the Baltimore Blackbirds, the city's first indoor football team, at 1st Mariner Arena. "So I want to do whatever I can to make this a safe and productive city."

That's not Ogden's explanation for agreeing to be an offensive and defensive line coach with the Blackbirds of the American Indoor Football Association. (Last night's game against the Montgomery Bears was Ogden's first as an official Blackbirds coach.)

Instead, this is how Jonathan Ogden's little (6-foot-5 and 300-plus pounds) brother explains their establishment of a new nonprofit called the Ogden Brothers Welcome Home Foundation.

This isn't exactly a touchy-feely NFL/United Way project for sick children.

The Ogdens want to provide housing, counseling and job training to criminal ex-offenders as they emerge from prison and return to Baltimore. Aside from helping children escape the cycle of poverty, there might not be a more important effort in this city - getting adults out of the dreary cycle of crime-prison-crime.

It's the great unfinished business of a resurgent Baltimore.

"People don't want to acknowledge it or talk about it," Marques Ogden says. "But we have to."

We've got construction nearly everywhere you look, and developers competing for real estate. There's a genuine, new-wave downtown renaissance under way, yet the crime and violence in the poorest neighborhoods continues, fueled by drugs, gangs and too many Baltimoreans who relapse into addiction.

You can look it up: At any given time, Maryland has up to 22,000 inmates in its sprawling prison system. (There are about 5,000 more men and women in county detention centers and the city jail.) It costs state taxpayers at least $24,000 per inmate per year. Every year, the state releases between 10,000 and 15,000 inmates, and about two-thirds of them return to live in Baltimore ZIP codes. Within three years, half of them commit new crimes - in the city and elsewhere -and return to our prisons.

Politicians, even the so-called liberals in this blue state, aren't inclined to do much about it because they don't see what it gets them: Convicted felons can't vote and supporting successful offender re-entry carries the soft-on-crime taint.

But we can do better. Reducing recidivism returns men - not all, but certainly more - to their families as responsible and productive fathers and husbands, reduces criminal violence, improves neighborhoods, provides better environments for children, and improves the general quality of Baltimore's work force.

"I have friends who are ex-offenders," says Marques Ogden. "It's not unusual for any of us to have friends who have records. But they tell me how hard it is. They can't seem to find anything better than a job in a fast-food restaurant. But I'll tell you: Some of these guys could do better than other workers. They have something to prove. They are determined to turn their life around. They really, really want a better life."

Not all of them, to be sure, but certainly more than you'd think. (Since offering information about jobs and training programs in this space in June 2005, more than 4,500 ex-offenders have contacted The Sun for help.)

People in the offender re-entry field - and that's a small, dedicated core of social workers and counselors, parole and probation officials - say that, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, an increasing number of companies have been using background checks on prospective employees and eliminating those with any kind of criminal history. All the thresholds of security have become harder to cross and, as a result, ex-offenders who might have been given a second chance five years ago find themselves summarily rejected even for entry-level, low-wage jobs.

So having the Ogden brothers lend their name to this effort will be enthusiastically received by re-entry activists.

A lot of ex-offenders come out of prison with no place to go. The Ogdens, who recently established their Welcome Home project as a bona fide nonprofit, want to buy a property and provide men with a place to live as they prepare for the next phase of their lives.

This is all about giving back, putting down roots and lending a golden name to a challenging cause.

"The town has been very good to the Ogden brothers," Marques says. The younger Ogden played for the Buffalo Bills, Jacksonville Jaguars and Baltimore Ravens, but sat out last season after the death of his father; Marques hopes to return to the NFL this year. He's 26 years old. Down the line, he'd like to be a coach.

His big brother, Jonathan, has played for the Ravens for his entire career, literally a larger-than-life figure in this community. The eight-time Pro Bowl tackle created a foundation for schoolchildren here. He's reportedly considering retirement - from football, but obviously not from charitable work.

The mission of the Ogden Brothers Welcome Home Foundation includes educating the public about the problems facing ex-offenders.

One of the biggest problems is the reluctant employer, the business that refuses to hire ex-offenders. So Jonathan and Marques intend to set an example. They have a remodeling company called Kayden Enterprises. Once they get Welcome Home up and running, they intend to provide training for ex-offenders in the construction trades and put them to work in their company.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

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