HERE'S WHAT happens in the big city: A 42-year-old man, who wasted half his life in jails and prisons because of heroin, announces that he's clean and wants out. No longer will he do dope or deal dope. He wants to leave the ranks of the thousands of men and women who for years helped suck the life out of vast stretches of Baltimore. "I just want to get back to working, and being productive," the man says. He sounds earnest.
So one day he finds himself on trial for a job. It's not much of a job -
busing tables in a restaurant - but it's a way to get a little income and stay
busy until he can find something better, and a way to show his wife, a state
employee, that he's determined to do the right thing.
And he blows it.
Here's the version I got: The man had never had a job like this before,
clearing away dirty dishes and flatware in a busy downtown restaurant. He
claimed he didn't know that waiters or waitresses - and not the guy who buses
tables - collect tips. And that's exactly what he did: He pocketed cash and
coin as he cleared tables. The restaurant management caught on, refused to
accept what the man did as a novice's mistake, and dismissed him on the spot.
That's how it goes. For men and women who have been on the street or in
prison for long stretches of their lives, the comeback trail is a steep hill.
"It's hard out here," dozens of men and women have said this summer as I
spoke to them about their search for jobs after prison and drug treatment.
Many employers won't consider hiring them, and a lot of ex-offenders fail even
when given a chance.
Thousands of Baltimoreans have criminal records, the vast majority of them
because of illegal narcotics. And, in this supposedly liberal state, they've
spent more time in jail than one might think.
According to a new report from the Justice Policy Institute, Maryland
sentencing guidelines result in stiffer jail sentences for generally
nonviolent drug offenders than for those who commit more serious crimes. The
report pointed out that those caught up in the drug life relapse into doing
dope or committing other petty crimes; when they violate terms of their
probation, their jail time gets up to a third longer than it would have been
had they been punished for the original offense.
This doesn't make sense. It never did. Warehousing drug offenders during
Baltimore's long heroin-and-cocaine era has been a waste of money.
While incarcerated (at a cost of $24,000 a year to Maryland taxpayers),
addicts should be sentenced to drug treatment; drug dealers should be trained
for new careers. Doing otherwise - or, mainly, nothing - has resulted in a
recidivism rate of 50 percent statewide, and in Baltimore a terrible waste of
human resources, with thousands of unemployed ex-offenders on the street.
One of the toughest realms of social work in this city is ex-offender job
placement - and it's one of the most important, indeed one of the great
challenges facing Baltimore.
We have in our midst thousands of men and women - uneducated or
undereducated, poor, sometimes homeless, addicted or in recovery from
addiction - who need to be directed away from drugs and into sustained
There are a handful of nonprofit agencies at work in this realm. One of
them is Goodwill Industries of the Chesapeake's ex-offender program. Its
official title is Supporting Ex-Offenders in Employment Training and
Transitional Services, or SEETTS. It's located on Redwood Street, and every
week men and women go there for help. One of their helpers is the job
placement coordinator, Chip Reis, a former Catholic priest who maintains a
positive attitude singed by realities such as the failure of the 42-year-old
man described at the top of this column.
"You want them to succeed, you really do, but not all of them do," says
Reis. "I've had people come through here who I would have bet on like
Seabiscuit but who still failed. You can't help everybody."
Reis knows where to find jobs. He knows which Baltimore companies won't
hire ex-offenders, and which will. He says a lot of employers do not
appreciate the scope of the problem in Baltimore, and how they could be part
of the solution. So he devotes a day a week to recruiting new businesses for
The rest of the time, Reis runs a class that helps prepare his clients for
interviews, and he gives them job leads.
"This is not an employment agency. I don't guarantee jobs. I tell them that
up front," says Reis. "I say, `You have to be out there [looking for jobs],
Several ex-offenders - drug dealers, drug users or dealer-users - called
The Sun this summer for help in finding a job. Of those referred to Reis'
program at Goodwill, 13 landed jobs, and 24 entered SEETTS. Another 20 made
contact with Reis but did not register for his program.
There are a lot of frustrations associated with this work, and it requires
acres of patience, but Reis finds it fulfilling. It's some of the most
important work going on in Baltimore these days. "Oh, it's very rewarding,"
says Reis. "Guys will say to me, as they go off to a job or to look for a job,
`I won't let you down, Mr. Chip.' And I always answer, `Don't let yourself
After falling so far, coming back can be a long, hard climb
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