Prison won't heal Baltimore's blight, but helping out its victims would

BALTIMORE'S drug cancer has eaten away at people, families and wholeneighborhoods for more than three decades. It has affected the entire regionin some way and, considering the thousands of citizens involved in thisproblem, seems intractable, a lost cause.

Decriminalization is not the answer. No one I know believes heroin andcocaine are going to be made legal anytime soon. The war on drugs didn't cutthe demand for dope, but it certainly gave us the highest per capitaincarceration rate in the world. Thousands of offenders in Maryland, and themajority of those who return to Baltimore from prison each year, are involvedin drugs in some way. We spend $24,000 per inmate per year now, and ourrecidivism rate is 50 percent.

It's a huge mess.

But we could get out of it.

Here's what we do:

We continue to spend money - and more of it - on drug treatment throughoutthis state, and particularly in Baltimore. We need to reach a point whereevery person addicted to drugs, insured or uninsured, gets treatment whenthey're ready or when the drug court judges send them there.

Treatment on demand brings more recovery. More recovery means less demandfor cocaine and heroin. Less demand means, eventually, fewer drug dealers.Fewer dealers means less killing. And all that means Baltimore gets to shakeits reputation for heroin and homicide. Families benefit. The whole regionbenefits.

Meanwhile, the culture of corrections needs to change; we need to break theineffective and dangerous warehouse system. The Ehrlich administration shouldexpand its comprehensive offender re-entry efforts to prepare thousands ofinmates for a healthy return to society.

Reformed dealers and recovering addicts, lost for years in the drug world,need help finding themselves, their skills and decent jobs. The governor, whoenjoys the Maryland business community's attention, needs to challenge theprivate sector to step up and consider hiring ex-offenders.

Otherwise, we're wasting a great human resource in our midst and doingnothing but pushing an expensive revolving door.

We can make a big dent in the drug culture. A lot of people seem primed forthis.

More than a 100 Baltimoreans have contacted The Sun during the past sixweeks to express a desire to get out of the game. They called for help findingthe full-time jobs they believe will keep them from returning to the streets.

Brief profiles of some follow. Companies or individuals interested in a jobapplication from any of these men - or getting more information about thequiet, effective programs that focus on helping ex-offenders - should contactme at 410-332- 6166, or by e-mail at dan.rod

Gerald Patterson

At 37, Patterson says he hasn't been incarcerated in four years, hasn'tsold drugs in three - "I'm too scared to do that now" - and has been trying todo the right thing as a father of five children in West Baltimore. He workedfor Jiffy Lube before taking a job with another company that went out ofbusiness. He hasn't had any luck returning to automobile maintenance, butwould like that kind of work again. "I've done some construction, and I havecarpentry skills," he says. "I worked for a demolition company, too. I can doa lot of things."

Andre Hairston

A one-time user and seller of heroin, Hairston, 43, is assistant housemanager of a recovery center in West Baltimore. He says he's been clean for afew months and feels ready to get back to work. He has experience in homeimprovement and in cooking.

Robert Bell

On home detention and living with his parents in Baltimore County sinceDec. 1, Bell, 39, is likely to be released early next year. He's in his thirdyear of recovery from a heroin addiction; his last criminal conviction was forburglary. "I'm a very hard worker who got hooked on heroin," Bell says, "andmy life went to hell." He is allowed out of home detention for a job. He sayshe is experienced in welding, concrete finishing and metal fabrication.

Alvin Cunningham

Living with his mother and stepfather in East Baltimore, Cunningham is 18"and trying to stay out of trouble." He says he has a juvenile record and thathis most recent offense, from earlier this year, was a drug charge. Cunninghamseeks a custodial or warehouse job. I suggested he secure his GED.

Kevin Gambrill

He managed to work for 14 years as a cook while supporting a heroin habit."But I started stealing to pay for my heroin," says Gambrill, 39, explaininghow his streak of steady employment ended. He served more than 3 1/2 years inprison for theft and returned to West Baltimore, his wife and four children ayear ago. Gambrill takes methadone each day to control his heroin dependency.He is still unemployed but earnestly seeking a fresh start in a restaurantkitchen.

Kenneth Johnson

An East Baltimore resident, Johnson is 43 and started snorting heroin 20years ago. He became involved in its distribution, too. That led to fivestints in prison, the last one six years long. He was paroled 18 months ago,and he says he's clean. He wants to return to work as a roofer.

Sean Wright

"It's hard to get a job and take care of my family," says Wright, 36, abouthis search for work. Wright's record includes drug and handgun charges, thelast one in 1998. Released from prison in 2003, Wright had a job at asupermarket warehouse in Jessup until May, when he was arrested on anoutstanding warrant for an old motor vehicle violation. He spent three days inBaltimore's Central Booking and Intake Facility. Though relatives called hisemployer to explain his absence, Wright says, he lost his job. "I wish I hadthat job back. At least they were willing to give me a chance. ... I can dojust about anything. I learn fast."

Anthony Peterson

Married with one child and a grandchild in his care, Peterson is 46 yearsold and supervisor of a parking lot that will be closed in about six months."I'm going to have to find something new, and I don't care what it is, asalong as it's steady," he says. Peterson once sold drugs, but says he got outof that business seven years ago. "I just want to be a productive person," hesays, "and go forward, not backwards."

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