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Local Businesses Pursue Win/Wins Through Inmate Employment

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Howard County Department of Corrections Director Jack Kavanagh doesn’t usually want to see any released prisoner return to the Jessup Detention Center, but he recently eagerly welcomed one former inmate back.

“This young man had been in and out of prison and wanted to show us the first paycheck he earned after his last release,” Kavanagh said. “He’d never had one before in his life. It was a major accomplishment for him.”

That former inmate’s story reflects reality for far too many on the inside.

On prisoner surveys, “about 80% say the thing that will keep [them] from coming back is a job,” said Scott Pullen, the center’s re-entry coordinator.

Unfortunately for ex-offenders, many employment application forms demand information about convictions and incarceration, making it more difficult for them to receive unbiased consideration. Some businesses even operate under corporate policies that exclude ex-offenders from employment.

Locally, a number of businesses have been working closely with corrections facilities in Howard and Anne Arundel counties to provide work release and post-prison employment. Several are advocating for changes in state law that they believe could help reduce recidivism and make hiring easier for companies that constantly struggle to fill positions.

Second Chances

Mobern Lighting Co., of Jessup, and Coastal Sunbelt Produce, in North Laurel, are among the Howard County businesses involved with its Department of Corrections.

“We started because we had a problem retaining employees coming out of the Great Recession, and we had a production backlog,” said Mobern General Manager Bob Claire, adding that state vetting and pre-approval of candidates on the unemployment roster took too long to benefit the company.

Claire and Mobern President Bill Stone said they also share a personal philosophy of providing opportunity to those who need it.

“We’re businessmen, of course, but we enjoy and appreciate the side of growing the people we hire,” Stone said.

Across the line in Anne Arundel County, Hanover-based Belair Produce works with detention facilities in both Howard and Anne Arundel counties.

“It’s always a challenge for labor, in general, to get serious candidates through the vetting process,” said Belair Executive Vice President Rob Mumma. “We got involved with work release before it was in vogue, partly because I believe in providing the opportunity for somebody to take a deep breath, get their head straight and make a fresh start.”

Belair Produce changed its focus from working at the state level to working with county detention facilities because the quality of state screening fell short.

“You also don’t have seasoned felons in county facilities, so that’s more attractive for many employers considering work release,” he said. “We get to see what the inmates are like and encourage the serious ones to stay with us after they’re released. There’s always a big question of will they fall back, and it does happen, but we offer [raise] incentives for those who stick it out.”

Serving the Underserved

A quick search for felon-friendly employers on exoffender.net, a nationwide employment resource, reveals a list heavily populated by the fast food, food service, grocery, retail, hospitality and generic automotive service sectors. The list is extensive, but primarily consists of jobs with high turnover rates, low pay and little chance for advancement.

Currently, Claire and Stone are conducting a search of their own to find Maryland state legislators willing to sponsor legislative initiatives they feel can lead to long-term employment of the underserved communities — not just those coming from the Department of Corrections, but also youth and interns, homeless shelters, halfway houses, the disabled and others who are perpetually unemployed.

One change they’d like to see is that of limiting employer liability for hiring someone from the underserved communities with knowledge of their past.

Other initiatives include giving preference to suppliers who hire more than 10% of their workforce from underserved communities and for suppliers located within 50 miles of the job site, particularly with regard to state purchases under the Green Purchasing Act.

“We would also like to see targeted job tax credits for hiring those underserved,” Claire said.

Helping Hand

At Mobern, underserved employees sign a contract to work full-time and enter an after-hours vocational, training or community college program to develop a career. Mobern uses on-the-job training dollars to train the employee, and the educational institution arranges for tuition funding.

“The goal is … to have a long-term employee who stays for, say, two years, then leaves along a tangible career path,” Claire said.

Patrick James and Michael Lunsford, two current work release employees, said they are interested in continuing conditional employment at Mobern after their release from the Jessup Detention Center.

“This program definitely gives me the opportunity to build character and experience for future employment, something I never experienced before,” said James. “Mobern offers a lot of flexibility and room for personal improvement, and moving up in a career path.”

With Mobern’s help, he hopes to be able to attend college and get a degree.

Lunsford, who has prior experience in the electrical field, said he also plans to pursue follow-on employment at Mobern.

Initially, he said, “It will help toward having enough money to rent a room and get on my feet. I feel like I have the potential to grow in this company, and I’ve got some long-term goals in mind that they’re willing to help with.”

Re-Entry

Pullen began his tenure as Howard County’s re-entry coordinator in 2011, and he convinced Kavanagh to establish a re-entry program based on New York’s successful model. A year later, the county was one of six jurisdictions chosen to participate in the Transition from Jail to Community (TJC) program, established by the Urban Institute, a nonprofit, and the National Institute of Corrections, an agency within the U.S. Department of Justice.

Under the Detention Center’s six-week program, inmates learn about community resources, interview skills, acquiring proper identification documents, good health habits and also receive a 60-day bus pass.

Strategic partnerships with Healthy Howard, Howard Community College, the Maryland Workforce Exchange and other community stakeholders help ex-offenders find their way after release.

“It costs $40,000 annually to keep someone in jail, but only a couple thousand to keep them in the community,” Pullen said. “Our biggest challenge is housing. I have 22 ex-offenders living in the woods right now because they can’t afford rent.”

The Howard County Detention Center is working to expand its employer base and is considering options to improve the post-release housing situation.

“One idea might be for us to purchase our own property and operate a peer-run housing model, like Oxford House,” Pullen said, a concept providing a sober, supportive living environment that was first established in nearby Silver Spring in 1975 and has since grown internationally.

“The No. 1 reason many of our inmates are in jail is probation violations,” he added. “Since we’ve started this program, we’ve been seeing a reduction in recidivism. We’d like to do what we can to encourage that trend.”

Native Plant Nursery

In April, the Howard County Detention Facility went hands-on by entering into an innovative partnership with Restoring the Environment and Developing Youth (READY), a young adult workforce program.

Through the partnership, selected work release inmates managed by READY will tend a nursery that will provide native plants for county rain gardens and stormwater management facilities.

Howard County Council Chair Calvin Ball said working in the garden will provide detainees with a sense of pride, marketable skills and experience with managing work responsibilities.

“I believe this program will help remove some of the barriers to re-entry, as inmates seek out a second chance upon release,” he said.

“Since these plants can be used by Howard County Government in many of our projects, we are making our community more sustainable,” said Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman.

Ultimately, said Claire, the efforts of Mobern and other local companies offering a second chance to inmates and the underserved boil down to the same concept of creating a more sustainable community.

“There are too many Band-aids in our society,” he said. “We’re looking for ways to come up with a cure.”