Officials have suspended a program that provided inmate labor for a Howard County horse rescue farm, after complaints from neighbors and parents of young volunteers who said they weren't notified that prisoners would be at the site.
The Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services rolled out the program at the Days End Farm Horse Rescue last week. But just days later, officials were apologizing for how the initiative was handled.
"I was definitely against it. Nobody knew about it," said Tammy Mirabile, who lives with her husband and four children, ages 2 to 11, less than a mile from the farm on Woodbine Road and learned about the initiative through a newspaper account last weekend. An inmate could flee, she said, into the rural and residential areas near the farm.
Days End is a temporary home to 70 abused and neglected horses, and has taken ailing equines from all over the state — including some of Baltimore's a-rab ponies that pull fruit carts downtown. About 1,200 people volunteer at the farm over the course of a year, said executive director Kathy Howe, including teenagers who help the operations of the nonprofit devoted to nursing the animals back to health and finding homes for them.
If the program resumes, "they're going to lose volunteers, rather than gain them," Mirabile said.
She and others registered their displeasure with state Del. Warren E. Miller, a Republican who represents the area.
"I got complaints from parents whose kids work there," Miller said. "They never told the parents. It's disconcerting."
Miller called his colleague, Del. Gail H. Bates, a Republican who serves on a subcommittee that oversees corrections spending, who in turn contacted Gary D. Maynard, secretary of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.
Maynard, who was at the farm when the program was launched July 8, quickly agreed that he had erred in not informing the community or the legislators, Bates said.
The corrections chief suspended the program indefinitely Monday, though department officials point out that the four inmates who were the first participants were classified as nonviolent offenders.
"I am not saying it's a good or bad program. It was handled poorly," Bates said, adding that she too was not informed about the program's launch. "In Howard County, we keep the public informed."
Howe, the farm's executive director, said she thought the inmates, supervised by a correctional officer, would be a help in managing the 58-acre property, which runs on a $1.2 million yearly budget. The first group of inmates worked for two days last week before Maynard told her the program was on hold.
"There was never any communications between the volunteers and the inmates," she said. "They were a group very well supervised and were helping to maintain the land."
Howe acknowledged that the farm had not informed the farm's many volunteers or the community of the program, because it had not occurred to her anyone would be upset.
"I guess I really didn't anticipate it," she said.
She said the farm did not get complaints directly from the public, though she said several parents of young volunteers did call seeking information after seeing an article in some editions of The Baltimore Sun.
On their first day at work, inmate Paula Jordan, 41, of Baltimore, said she and the other three inmates said they were grateful for "a little taste of freedom" on the sprawling farm.
"I made wrong choices, and I'm paying the consequences, said the single mother of three, who worked in the hot sun cutting grass.
"Being here and knowing that I'm helping them for a good cause makes me feel like I'm giving something back," said inmate Whitley Neal, 22.
Rick Binetti, communications director for the corrections agency, agreed Wednesday that the department "probably did not do its due diligence" and that community and local officials should have been notified.
"It was probably a lack of foresight," he said, while praising the program for allowing inmates who have shown a commitment to changing their lives to work outside prison in different locations across the state.
The state corrections agency sends inmates to a variety of locations to provide labor. Recent efforts have included using inmates to help build Habitat for Humanity houses on the Eastern Shore, as well as planting orchards and other trees to help restore the Antietam battlefield.
Binetti said that the hope is that in time, after community concerns are addressed, the program can be restarted. The inmates involved have made progress on their educations and had shown good behavior.
"It was part of their transition back into the community," he said.
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