While Travis Baldwin is incarcerated at Jessup Correctional Institution, he's learning how to safely remove asbestos from contaminated buildings — by working next door at the shuttered Maryland House of Correction.
Baldwin, a mechanic by trade, is one of about 160 inmates who will help tear down the prison and will be certified to perform a handful of construction and contracting tasks in Maryland, Virginia and Washington when released.
"It's something we can take with us when we get out," said Baldwin, who is serving time for burglary and assault.
The House of Correction, built in the 1800s, was once home to some of the state's most violent offenders. The state shut down the maximum-security prison in 2007 amid safety concerns after a rash of violence in 2006, including the murder of a correctional officer.
Now the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services is having inmates work with a contractor's crew to deconstruct the building — a process that department officials say is saving the state millions of dollars and equipping inmates with marketable skills.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, hazardous materials removal workers earned a median of $18.08 a hour in 2010. Demand for such workers is expected to grow 23 percent between 2010 and 2020, the bureau estimated.
On Thursday, 10 inmates gathered in the brick building and practiced for their asbestos-removal certification test under the supervision of Dave Truman of Aerosol Monitoring and Analysis Inc.
The inmates volunteered for the deconstruction and were selected based on criteria such as their physical ability and expected release from prison, said John Wolfe, warden of Jessup Correctional Institution.
In addition to earning professional certifications, there were other incentives for prisoners to take part in the project: The inmates are getting time off their sentences and will make $2.50 a day tearing down the facility, more than double what they'd earn working other prison jobs.
Gary Hornbaker, who was the last warden at the House of Correction and now serves as project manager of the deconstruction, said the work should not pose health risks. Inmates had physicals before starting the project, and they'll have regular pulmonary function checkups for asbestos exposure, he said.
Some facility deconstruction began in 2011, but the bulk of the work is expected to be completed in the next 18 months, ending September 2014, Hornbaker said. Mark Vernarelli, spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said the state hasn't decided what the site will be used for after the prison is taken down.
On Thursday, the inmates worked in a mock asbestos site set up in the administration wing of the House of Correction, where they pretended the ceiling tiles were full of asbestos. The men secured sheets of plastic to the walls from floor to ceiling, using a spray adhesive and duct tape to contain the "contaminated" area. Later that afternoon, they planned to remove the ceiling tiles, wash them with soap and water, and seal them in bags so they could dispose of them.
In preparation for a day of work, Antonio Edison had fashioned kneepads by wrapping duct tape around rags placed over his jeans.
"Sometimes that's how you improvise in the field," he said with a laugh.
Edison has his asbestos abatement certification and worked as a licensed asbestos remover in schools and military bases before he was imprisoned for robbery. For him, participating in the project is about helping his fellow inmates learn what to expect once they encounter an asbestos-filled environment, he said.
Goddard Simmons, an inmate who is serving time for DUI, has a background in construction, having worked with concrete, roofing and heavy equipment. He said working with asbestos is new to him, but he's enjoying it.
He took a lead abatement certification test as part of the deconstruction project and scored 90 percent. His asbestos removal certification test is Friday.
"I plan on getting a hundred on that," he said.