Inside a cavernous dry dock on the waters of Curtis Bay, beneath the raised hull of Baltimore's tall ship Constellation, William Jackson worked with his hands Thursday learning a trade he never imagined he would.
Released last month after serving 24 years in prison for bank robbery, the 54-year-old Washington native joined several other former inmates in assisting a crew of professional shipwrights replacing a rotted section of the historic sloop-of-war's hull planking.
"It's experience that you can only dream about," said Jackson, as the sounds of saws and sanders buzzed through the maze of metal scaffolds, wood planks, lights and wires hugging the ship's underbelly. "It's a piece of history. I was blessed."
Since late October, the Constellation — which usually docks in the Inner Harbor — has been out of the water at the Coast Guard's Baltimore shipyard for needed repairs. If all goes according to plan, it will head home Feb. 20.
In the meantime, the whirring workplace that has cropped up around it has become a training ground for men like Jackson, enrolled in a job-placement and "re-entry" program for newly released ex-offenders run by the Living Classrooms Foundation, the nonprofit that also happens to be the Constellation's steward.
"I've learned things I've never done in life, tools of the trade," Jackson said. "When people open a door for you, you have to step in. You can't move forward if you don't want it. I want it."
The Constellation — a National Historic Landmark — dates to 1854 and is the descendant of another ship of the same name that was first launched from the Sterrett Shipyard in Baltimore in 1797. Its storied history includes service as flagship of the Navy's African Squadron, which between 1859 and 1861 rescued more than 3,700 slaves and arrested their captors.
During routine maintenance in 2011, it was discovered that portions of the ship's hull planking installed during a previous restoration in the late 1990s had begun rotting. Fresh water had slipped into gaps in the top of laminated panels near the ship's water line and slowly begun eating away at the wood.
Living Classrooms, which uses the ship as a floating museum and educational space, feared the rot would spread to the ship's frame and large beams — which are original — and immediately began planning and raising money for the current $2 million restoration, said Chris Rowsom, director of the foundation's Historic Ships program.
In October, the giant steel dry dock at the Coast Guard yard was sunk, the Constellation was floated in backwards and centered above a line of keel blocks. Additional support blocks were shifted into position, a diver ensuring everything was in place, and then the whole dock was drained and refloated.
Tarping was draped all around the hull to help block out the winter cold and create a mine-like work space, with multiple levels of wooden plankways delivering hard-hatted workers to the sloping, usually submerged curves of the ship's hull.
Organizers decided to include the foundation's Project SERVE job-training program in the repair plans, seeing it as an opportunity for participants to get on-the-job training while offsetting the cost of manpower.
"When we got her in here, we could literally pull pieces of planking off by hand," Rowsom said. "Unfortunately, all of it wasn't that easy."
"Everything is bigger than you'd expect," said Tim Fowler, a Lauraville resident and the project's foreman, who has overseen restoration work on the Constellation since 1997. "With standard construction, you might have the same project 100 times. With ships, no two things are the same."
As the work got underway, every extra set of hands became invaluable, Rowsom said, and Project SERVE participants like Jackson were called on more and more — going from sweeping up and doing odd jobs around the site to participating in the carpentry-like tasks of installing the ship's new planks.
"We needed them to do more, and they have become an invaluable asset," Rowsom said. "It's amazing what they've been able to do."
"They love it," said John Jones, 49, a former Project SERVE participant himself and now a case manager who oversees others in the program.
A West Baltimore native, Jones went to prison for murder when he was 17 years old, found guilty of participating in a robbery that led to the murder but not of being the shooter himself. In prison, he earned his General Educational Development certificate and a degree from Coppin State University. He was released from prison almost two years ago, at age 47, after 30 years behind bars, when his life sentence was commuted by Gov. Martin O'Malley with no opposition from the Baltimore City state's attorney.
Jones said everything Project SERVE does — from buying ex-offenders suits to lining them up with jobs and housing — is important. Handling all those things alone can be daunting for people, like himself, who have been behind bars for so long that things such as cellphones and self-checkout lines at grocery stores can seem foreign and hard to grasp, he said.
Jones said he has seen the program save men's lives, and he nodded in agreement Thursday as a program spokeswoman said participants in Project SERVE only have a 4 percent recidivism rate. The statewide recidivism rate in recent years has hovered above 40 percent.
The Constellation project has been even more special, Jones said. Being involved in something bigger than themselves has opened participants' eyes to what's possible, he said, and some of the ex-offenders working on the ship have asked about continuing work in carpentry.
"We're going to look into that for these guys," Jones said. "They're actually sad it's going to be over."
The project has also been personally significant, he said.
Jones was behind bars for 30 years, and this year Living Classrooms is celebrating its 30-year anniversary too, he noted.
And on Feb. 20, when the Constellation heads back to the Inner Harbor, Jones will be marking another occasion: two years to the day since his release from prison, and still on the right track.
Baltimore Sun research librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.