'Changing lives with each stitch'

Why not put former inmates to work sewing religious apparel?

I need to stop here, while the new president of the republic goes about planning for Armageddon — building a wall, banning refugees, pulling out of a global trade deal, touting torture — to give attention to the better angels.

An American can take only so much of that stuff, the dark Trumpian vision that scowls at everything and offers little in the way of optimism or faith. If you're not careful, it can leave you feeling suspicious, fearful and cynical about everything and everybody.

So I take care to look for the good. Today it's a preview of a unique effort to help people once incarcerated find a way to the workaday mainstream. I think you'll like it.

This year marks 12 since I first started devoting space in this column to the problem of employment for ex-offenders. I always assumed that a criminal record was an obstacle to getting a job, but I did not appreciate the problem's scope until one day in 2005, when the phone start ringing and the mail started arriving. Hundreds of men and women who had been released from Maryland prisons complained that few employers would give them a second chance.

It was a sleeping giant of a social issue, with a costly consequence: Two-thirds of released inmates returned to the corrections system within three years. That recidivism rate was once generally consistent across the country, state by state.

In Maryland, the rate has dropped to about 40 percent. But, at $38,000 a year per inmate, a significant chunk of our taxes still goes to compensate for the failure of the corrections system.

Of course, some human beings never change; they get out of prison and return to their old neighborhoods and resume their old habits. Some come out of prison poorly prepared to find a home and a job. Many get discouraged. Some get desperate.

The entire corrections system should be overhauled and given the staff of social workers, teachers, skills instructors and inmate advocates necessary to reduce recidivism to under 10 percent. Such a thing would require bold thinking and strong political will, but we're not quite there yet, even in the relatively progressive state of Maryland.

In the meantime, a few government and nonprofit agencies try to help ex-offenders adjust to life outside the walls.

Now the organizers of a new effort, nearly five years in the planning, are aiming to start operations in September — and it's one of the most original that's come to my attention.

Here's the setup:

While incarcerated, hundreds of Maryland inmates learn skills so they can manufacture products, including clothing for other inmates and uniforms for correctional officers. They do this under the auspices of Maryland Correctional Enterprises. That state agency has sewing shops at the Jessup Correctional Institution, the Eastern Correctional Institution in Westover and at the Maryland women's prison in Jessup.

Knowing how to sew on an industrial scale is good. But Baltimore, which is home to a significant population of released inmates, has limited opportunities for jobs in that field.

So Chester France, a native of West Baltimore who served as a prison chaplain for 17 years, had an idea: Create an operation to employ former inmates who know how to sew.

And, because of his religious background, France saw a potential market: His fellow clergy. Why not put former inmates to work sewing religious apparel? They could stitch together clerical vestments, choir robes and uniforms for ushers. They could make ceremonial apparel for any faith.

Baltimore clergy often buy their robes on the internet. Some travel out of state to purchase vestments. France says a number of local clergy have agreed to support his effort.

While developing his plan, France met Phil Spector, owner of Fashions Unlimited Inc. on Wicomico Street in Southwest Baltimore.

"Phil has been in the business of apparel manufacturing for designers across the country for over 42 years," says France. "And so we had a conversation, and Phil said, 'Look, I want to start a sewing school because I don't have enough employees to do the work that I have coming in. I'd like to teach people to sew.'"

So Fashion Unlimited is a partner, France says, and Spector will train the former inmates — about 30 of them, for starters — how to stitch the robes that will make up the nonprofit's threshold business.

The collaborative is called The Chill Station-Root of Jesse, and it receives support from Strong City Baltimore. In addition, the Ministers' Conference of Baltimore and Vicinity has made a commitment to the initiative, and that includes having its members purchase robes with the trademark Lifting Labels and the collaborative's motto: "Changing lives with each stitch."

In addition to the clergy, France says, a Maryland judge has agreed buy a black robe and urge his colleagues in the judiciary to do the same.

You see that? This story even has a little touch of irony. I knew you'd like it.

drodricks@baltsun.com

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