At Jessup-based manufacturer, ex-offenders are getting 'a second chance'

At Mobern, ex-offenders get 'a second chance'

When Lugnest "Lucky" Roberts appeared before Howard County Circuit Court in August 2014, the 46-year-old said he was fortunate to be arrested on charges of possessing marijuana and a handgun. After struggling to find a job for seven months, his arrest in October 2013 "saved" him from falling into other dangers, he said.

The judge sentenced him to one year in jail for the marijuana charge after Roberts pleaded guilty. A warehouse job at Mobern, a Jessup-based lighting company, gave him a second chance. Roberts got the job through a work release program, ordered by the court that sentenced him, in November 2014 and has stayed there since his release from jail four months after serving the sentence.

"I had to start over and I'm still starting over even to this day," said Roberts, who has more than 10 years of marketing and sales experience and now forklifts packages and helps manage orders. "Not all people who have gone through the system are bad people. I'm trying to get what I can from a second chance."

Roberts is a success story for the company, according to Bob Claire, general manager of Mobern, a nationally recognized manufacturer of energy-efficient lighting that began hiring ex-offenders through a partnership with the Howard County Detention Center after the 2008 recession. The company hires recovering addicts, people from halfway houses and ex-offenders from Anne Arundel, Prince George's and Howard counties; most work in the company's warehouse.

"We want to take the risk of serving the under-served community," Claire said. "Re-entry can't just be on the government institutions."

Curbing rates of recidivism and paving a path from incarceration to productive citizenship is central to Mobern's business model, as the detention center steps up efforts to encourage more local companies to participate in work-release and reentry employment programs.

"If we don't give them a chance, why are we surprised that they don't succeed?" said Jack Kavanagh, director of the Howard County Detention Center and the county's Department of Corrections.

Many ex-offenders struggle to find jobs after release, said Darlene Jolly, reentry coordinator for the detention center. Employers often demand information about convictions and incarcerations and other companies' policies bar ex-offenders from employment.

For Roberts, the position at Mobern reminds him he is not alone. He begins an hour-long commute from Baltimore County to Mobern at 4:20 a.m. and appreciates what he calls the " luxuries of life," such as paying bills on time and getting his son through a football program.

Marred by a drug-related conviction in the early 2000s, Roberts struggled to find a job and wondered how he would support his family, including four children, he said.

"I made a lapse in judgment and it's following me," Roberts said. "But I have my freedom and I get to see my family everyday. It's a lesson in humility."

'We lay down the law'

Not everyone buys into the model — not even within the ranks of Mobern.

"People here think that we should run a business and not a baby sitting service for adults," Claire said. "But I'm realistic and pragmatic and serious about this program."

Turnover rates remain high, according to company officials. Despite a comprehensive interviewing process, workers sometimes play games with probation or stop by the liquor store — despite promises of being reformed, Claire said.

"We lay down the law. If you're struggling with something, we'll give you some time and resources. But if you play games, it's over," Claire said. "We understand and appreciate that everyone comes from different walks of life."

The detention center, which has long run vocational training programs, relies on community partnerships for work-release and reentry programs. In the past, the center has worked with Belair Produce in Hanover and Boston Market.

Staff at the center carefully vet candidates for work-release programs and in some cases have denied court-ordered requests if an inmate is aggressive in the institution.

Within the walls of the jail, inmates cycle through a six-week program where they practice interviews, create resumes and cover letters and learn to come clean about their criminal past. Another program prepares inmates for jobs in restaurants by providing food handling certification through the National Restaurant Association. The center also began offering graphic arts training late last year and hired a tutor for inmates not yet ready to enroll in Howard Community College.

"It's not just a nice thing to do. It's an absolute public safety issue," said Patricia Schupple, deputy director of the county's Department of Corrections. "Re-entry is not a jail program. Reentry is a community program."

Without secure employment, inmates are often set up to fail, Kavanagh said.

Lack of unemployment is one risk factor wrapped into other factors like addiction, mental health issues and lack of education, that the detention center attempts to tackle through its programs and partnership with the local health department, Howard Community College and other local and state agencies.

"It's not unreasonable to say that if you don't let them work… they'll go to places where maybe drug activity is accepted or they will hustle jobs that are illegal," Kavanagh said. "They're going to come back and don't be shocked that they are."

Mobern is located in an industrial park near the detention center. Roberts made the trip to the company as a former inmate — a straight walk from the detention center that he says opened up more opportunities for his future.

Roberts hopes to enroll in culinary school — a love that, ironically, grew out of preparing meals for inmates at the detention center.

"It's funny how the timeline goes," he said. "I don't know what to expect for the next five years, but I owe a loyalty to Mobern. And I can't be more thankful."

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