Our city's firms must reach out to 51st state

America's 51st state - the state of Incarceration - has a citizenship of about 2.1 million now, making it just about as populated as Nevada or Utah. Incarceration USA had just 500,000 residents in 1980; the war on drugs, more than any other factor, contributed to its striking growth - and continues to fuel its remarkable retention rate. In 2000, nearly 605,000 inmates were released back into the other 50 states. In 2003, that number reached 656,320, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Despite this, Incarceration still boasts more people than the states of Rhode Island and Delaware combined.

Maryland's contribution to the state of Incarceration was, as of last month, 22,446. Add those at Patuxent Institution and those awaiting trial in Baltimore's jails, and the number approaches 27,000. That doesn't include the number sitting in all the county detention centers.

Here in the Free State, the average length of stay in a prison is five years. We release up to 15,000 inmates per year.

More than half of those come back to Baltimore.

More than half of all released inmates go back to prison within three years.

Many of them end up back inside because they either don't want, can't find or don't know how to do jobs in the mainstream working world. Many of them have the motivation and some skills but encounter hard barriers to employment because of their criminal backgrounds - a lot of companies simply won't hire felons, even those whose crimes are limited to nonviolent drug offenses.

This whole system needs to be overhauled and more employers educated on the potential labor pool that moves constantly in and out of Incarceration USA. "For those individuals who are willing to commit and do the hard work that's necessary, our justice system should and can be about rehabilitation," said Jim Smith, who spent 16 years as a Baltimore County judge before becoming the county executive. "For that to happen, there has to be hope and the possibility of a better future. When there are jobs, there are opportunities on which to build a new life. We all have a stake in ensuring there are only ex-offenders, not repeat offenders."

Smith spoke Friday in a downtown hotel at a breakfast honoring five Baltimore-area companies that not only hired ex-offenders but agreed to go public about it, as a way of setting an example to other employers. Honored companies included Dennis Marketing Group of Owings Mills, Primo Electric of Anne Arundel County and Second Chance of Baltimore. Here's a brief look at the other two:

Victor Graphics Inc.

Ever notice the big pineapple as you drive on Interstate 95 on the southwest side of the city? That's the landmark for Victor Graphics' 120,000-square-foot printing plant, where 180 employees produce $24 million worth of bound books a year. The pineapple is the company's symbol, and a 20-foot fiberglass one sits on the roof.


"We're known in the trade as the pineapple people," says David Gischel, vice president.

This 22-year-old business is now the largest privately owned local company in a trade with a long tradition of apprenticeship training. Its mission statement says, in part, that the company is "dedicated to being sensitive to individuals who initially may lack traditional job skills and/or work ethic."


Gischel says the company supports offenders in re-entry - "unless they have violent backgrounds" - and employs about eight former inmates who came through a printing class conducted in the old Maryland Penitentiary, now the Metropolitan Transition Center. Gischel says the center, where the printing program is based, has been a good source of workers. "Inmates trying to rewrite their lives," he calls them. "All of them have been good workers."

Hiring through the training center, Gischel says, "is a lot better than just hiring off the street."

Victor Graphics offers entry-level pressroom jobs, with an opportunity for advancement to pressman positions. Gischel says some ex-offenders have left Victor Graphics after a couple of years, but he's not sure where they ended up. He'd like to see more of the workers stick with his company and make a career with "the pineapple people."

Choktaw Kaul

Transportation is a huge issue for the ex-offender population. Many of the men and women trying to establish themselves in the working world count on the bus to get them there.

When the Maryland Transit Administration curtailed some bus lines in October, it cut off service to Sparrows Point and left many employees of Choktaw Kaul, an industrial cleaning and janitorial company, scrambling for a ride to work - or discouraged.

One of them contacted this columnist and said he anticipated having to quit his job with the company if he could not find a ride there; at the time he wasn't having much luck. He knew few people who owned a car and none willing to drive him to southeastern Baltimore County at 6 a.m.

"At least 28 employees were affected" by the bus route change, says Brandon Gainer, a Detroit native who manages the Sparrows Point branch of the Michigan-based company. "Actually, more than that were affected. What we've done, since the line was cut out, is take it upon ourselves to give a carpool allowance to some of the people who drive to pick up other workers and bring them in."

Gainer also moved up the morning start, to 7:30 a.m. Still, he says, workers have a tough time getting to the Point on time, so he continues to petition the MTA to restore service.

Choktaw Kaul has a contract with Mittal Steel, the company that owns the former Bethlehem Steel plant. Sixty percent of Gainer's workers are ex-offenders, many of them referred by the STRIVE Baltimore program or the Mayor's Office of Employment Development. At least 75 percent of the company's staff is retained after one year.

The retention rate might be even better if the bus still ran to the Point.

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