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After falling so far, coming back can be a long, hard climb

HERE'S WHAT happens in the big city: A 42-year-old man, who wasted halfhis life in jails and prisons because of heroin, announces that he's clean andwants out. No longer will he do dope or deal dope. He wants to leave the ranksof the thousands of men and women who for years helped suck the life out ofvast stretches of Baltimore. "I just want to get back to working, and beingproductive," 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 staybusy until he can find something better, and a way to show his wife, a stateemployee, that he's determined to do the right thing.

The man has one day to prove that he can bus tables.

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. Heclaimed he didn't know that waiters or waitresses - and not the guy who busestables - collect tips. And that's exactly what he did: He pocketed cash andcoin as he cleared tables. The restaurant management caught on, refused toaccept 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 inprison 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 Ispoke 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 evenwhen given a chance.

Thousands of Baltimoreans have criminal records, the vast majority of thembecause of illegal narcotics. And, in this supposedly liberal state, they'vespent more time in jail than one might think.

According to a new report from the Justice Policy Institute, Marylandsentencing guidelines result in stiffer jail sentences for generallynonviolent drug offenders than for those who commit more serious crimes. Thereport pointed out that those caught up in the drug life relapse into doingdope or committing other petty crimes; when they violate terms of theirprobation, their jail time gets up to a third longer than it would have beenhad they been punished for the original offense.

This doesn't make sense. It never did. Warehousing drug offenders duringBaltimore'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 trainedfor new careers. Doing otherwise - or, mainly, nothing - has resulted in arecidivism rate of 50 percent statewide, and in Baltimore a terrible waste ofhuman resources, with thousands of unemployed ex-offenders on the street.

One of the toughest realms of social work in this city is ex-offender jobplacement - and it's one of the most important, indeed one of the greatchallenges facing Baltimore.

We have in our midst thousands of men and women - uneducated orundereducated, poor, sometimes homeless, addicted or in recovery fromaddiction - who need to be directed away from drugs and into sustainedemployment.

There are a handful of nonprofit agencies at work in this realm. One ofthem is Goodwill Industries of the Chesapeake's ex-offender program. Itsofficial title is Supporting Ex-Offenders in Employment Training andTransitional Services, or SEETTS. It's located on Redwood Street, and everyweek men and women go there for help. One of their helpers is the jobplacement coordinator, Chip Reis, a former Catholic priest who maintains apositive attitude singed by realities such as the failure of the 42-year-oldman described at the top of this column.

"You want them to succeed, you really do, but not all of them do," saysReis. "I've had people come through here who I would have bet on likeSeabiscuit but who still failed. You can't help everybody."

Reis knows where to find jobs. He knows which Baltimore companies won'thire ex-offenders, and which will. He says a lot of employers do notappreciate the scope of the problem in Baltimore, and how they could be partof the solution. So he devotes a day a week to recruiting new businesses forSEETTS.

The rest of the time, Reis runs a class that helps prepare his clients forinterviews, and he gives them job leads.

"This is not an employment agency. I don't guarantee jobs. I tell them thatup front," says Reis. "I say, `You have to be out there [looking for jobs],too.'"

Several ex-offenders - drug dealers, drug users or dealer-users - calledThe 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 madecontact with Reis but did not register for his program.

There are a lot of frustrations associated with this work, and it requiresacres of patience, but Reis finds it fulfilling. It's some of the mostimportant 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 yourselfdown.'"

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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