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Offensive Treatment

Despite Efforts to Help Ease Former Prisoners’ Re-Entry to Society, This Year’s Justice Monday Shows There’s Still Work to be Done

Frank Klein
GET A JOB: Felix Mata of the city's Northwest One-Stop Career Center says that although re-entry services for ex-offenders offer few easy solutions, they are essential.

By Christina Royster-Hemby | Posted 1/4/2006

Over the next couple of weeks criminal-justice activists across the state will be gearing up for Justice Monday, an annual rally, scheduled for Jan. 16, to draw lawmakers’ attention to protecting the rights of former inmates. This year the rally, which is spearheaded by the criminal-justice advocacy group Justice Maryland, will focus on increasing drug-treatment resources in the state and reinstating voting rights for ex-offenders whose felony convictions have been rescinded. Both are worthy goals, but for many ex-offenders, especially in Baltimore City, to which thousands of former prisoners return each year, it’s a struggle just to meet the most basic life needs.

Ex-offenders attempting to return to society, advocates say, face numerous obstacles to restarting their lives. Voting and getting better drug treatment are only part of the problems they face. Nearly 10,000 former Maryland inmates move into the city each year, and such mundane tasks as finding housing, getting a proper ID, and establishing a source of income can be incredibly difficult for them. In 2002, the Mayor’s Office of Employment Development created the Baltimore Citywide Ex-Offender Task Force to develop a plan for helping these ex-offenders navigate the path to life on the outside. The task force, made up of 100 businesses, some Maryland lawmakers, and criminal-justice advocates, has worked to develop a blueprint to meet the needs of these individuals. But those involved with the task force say that the web of employment and social issues ex-offenders face has made their job particularly complicated.

In July 2005, the task force opened a re-entry center for ex-offenders at the Office of Employment Development’s Northwest One-Stop Career Center in Mondawmin Mall. At this location, ex-offenders can get information about getting IDs, updating résumés, GED classes, literacy services, job listings, counseling, and child-support services. For convenience, the center is located near offices of the state Division of Parole and Probation and the city Department of Social Services.

Since it opened, about 1,000 people have visited the center. On a recent visit, just a few days before Christmas, the center was busy with 75 or so visitors trying to put their lives back together. Some watched videos of former prisoners talking about their transition back to society; others were working on getting their birth records or ID cards; still others sat in computer cubicles updating résumés and talking to counselors.

The re-entry center is just the latest example of the task force’s efforts, and its work is ongoing. “The mayor was really clear when he charged us back in 2002 to take a look at this population and see what isn’t happening and what can we do,” says Karen Sitnick, director of the Mayor’s Office of Employment Development, “that this wasn’t something that would be fixed in a year or two.”

Since its inception, the task force has published a 2003 report detailing recommendations for improving resources for ex-offenders, and has held four annual appreciation breakfasts for employers who hire former prisoners. This past March, a group that was born of the task force, the Citywide Re-entry and Reintegration Steering Committee, published a resource guide for ex-offenders to help them navigate the various agencies they need to deal with to get their lives back on track.

Felix Mata, manager of the re-entry center, says the level of activity witnessed during a recent visit is typical, and that often there is a line of 50 people waiting for the center to open. But all too often, enthusiastic ex-offenders come to the center thinking that they can get their lives in order immediately. But that’s not usually the case. For example, finding a job can be tough, because many employers don’t want to hire previously incarcerated people. Employers worry that ex-offenders will go back to old illegal habits, or that business might diminish if customers find out they employ former inmates.

“[Let’s say] you and your family have a nice house,” Mata says. “And you call your plumber, then find out that your plumber hires ex-offenders. Because of the stigma associated with most ex-offenders, you may feel threatened.” And while bonds and tax incentives are offered to employers who employ ex-offenders, the center’s employees can’t guarantee that an ex-offender won’t have an episode while on the job.

Finding employment for ex-offenders is critical, Mata says, because it is key to keeping people from returning to crime. “One third of ex-offenders re-offend within the first three months of release,” he says. “Fifty percent will re-offend within three years.”

Brenda Jennings-Queen, who was released from prison in the late ’90s, has been employed by the Mondawmin re-entry center since August. She says it took a year and a half to find a job that paid her enough money to take adequate care of herself. “At one time I sent out 250 résumés within a six-month period,” Jennings says. “The responses were good until the employers ran a background check on me. But after they found out that [I had a record], they were no longer interested.”

The re-entry center, despite all its hard work, can only help so many people each year. If it continues to provide assistance to roughly 1,000 people every five months, it would only reach a fraction of the former prisoners who move to Baltimore. Sitnick says that even if it tried the center does not have the capacity to serve them all.

“This [re-entry center] was never designed to be the one magic bullet,” Sitnick says. “Pragmatically, there’s no way that one center could have the capacity to serve all of the people who need to be served.”

She hopes that the center can instead serve as a model for other similar centers around the city, and she hopes that local and state agencies, once they see its success, will join in to meet the larger need.

“You have to be able to show that this project is making a difference so that we can go to the next step,” Sitnick says. That could mean opening more re-entry centers and perhaps even providing more transitional help for prisoners while they’re still “behind the fence,” anticipating their release.

Del. Salima Siler-Marriott, chairwoman of the Citywide Re-entry and Reintegration Steering Committee, says she agrees.

“We as the General Assembly have to support our state agencies who are engaged in the re-entry process,” the 40th District Democrat says, agreeing with Sitnick that some services—such as better GED programs and job training—should happen before an individual is released from incarceration. Further, Siler-Marriott notes, some offenders should not be put in jail at all; rather, they should be in substance-abuse treatment facilities. “We . . . have a responsibility for putting the resources in the budget and making sure that the resources for treatment, and not incarceration, and re-entry are available.”

Tara Andrews, executive director of Justice Maryland, estimates that 80 percent or more of those in the criminal-justice system are there as a result of drug or alcohol addiction.

“All of these issues from drug addiction, to transition from prison, to full reintegration, are critical to the health of communities and families all over Baltimore and the state of Maryland,” she says. Andrews says that there is a long way to go in the fight to improve the position of ex-offenders in society, so she expects advocates still will be carrying the same message to legislators in Annapolis on Justice Mondays in 2007 and beyond: “We will continue to fight, march, and rally until all of these issues receive the attention and the support they need in our laws and in our budgetary priorities.”

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