Maryland inmates on work duty have long been given a highly visible job: picking up garbage along the state's highways. Though the work has helped keep shoulders and medians free of litter, corrections officials acknowledge it doesn't do much to prepare prisoners for life on the outside.
So the state has been trying to detail inmates to public service projects that offer job skills that might help them re-enter society. On Tuesday, state and local officials held a ribbon-cutting to celebrate one such project — the completion of more than 200 new or rebuilt handicapped-accessible curbs in Westminster.
Starting in August, inmates from the Central Maryland Correctional Facility in Sykesville broke up 30-year-old curbs, then prepared the ground for replacements that offer a grooved surface for the blind and ramps that allow wheelchairs and strollers to move from sidewalk to street.
"The inmate is giving back to the community he offended [and] receiving valuable on the job experiences," said John Rowley, coordinator of the Public Safety Works program for the state corrections department. "The inmate also sees himself actually at work in the community, which makes the transition to work easier."
On any given day, 488 inmates from institutions across Maryland are out working on projects. Prisoners have aided in the demolition of the old Maryland House of Correction in Jessup, worked on farms, restored parks and helped with road repairs.
Inmate Ronnie Townes, who is serving a sentence for second-degree assault, said he saw the curb construction project as a way to demonstrate some job experience when he gets out.
"It's a good experience. I'm learning, I'm working well with others," said Townes, 21. "I'm out here because I want to do this when I get home."
Only low-security and pre-release level inmates qualify for supervised work detail. These are inmates who have progressed through the system and will be released within a matter of months.
The use of inmate labor has at times raised security questions from community members. A Howard County horse farm project was suspended in 2010 after residents complained they weren't previously aware that inmates would be working at the farm.
Westminster Mayor Kevin Utz said he has seen only positive results since the curb project began.
"I am shocked how quickly and professionally they are moving through the city to get this project done," he said.
Over the course of the project, inmates completed 214 curbs.
Rowley said the pace of the work indicates to him that the inmates have bought into the idea of building their resumes while giving back to society.
"While it is the responsibility of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services to provide opportunities for the inmates to improve their chances of succeeding upon release, they are the ones who have to step up and do it," he said.
And for some, there's no better motivation than time out from behind bars.
"The job skills are beneficial," said Charles Blizzard, who has been locked up for burglary and drug-related charges. "I'm enjoying the fact that I'm not in jail and I get some fresh air."