Prison won't heal Baltimore's blight, but helping out its victims would

BALTIMORE'S drug cancer has eaten away at people, families and whole neighborhoods for more than three decades. It has affected the entire region in some way and, considering the thousands of citizens involved in this problem, seems intractable, a lost cause.

Decriminalization is not the answer. No one I know believes heroin and cocaine are going to be made legal anytime soon. The war on drugs didn't cut the demand for dope, but it certainly gave us the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world. Thousands of offenders in Maryland, and the majority of those who return to Baltimore from prison each year, are involved in drugs in some way. We spend $24,000 per inmate per year now, and our recidivism rate is 50 percent.

It's a huge mess.

But we could get out of it.

Here's what we do:

We continue to spend money - and more of it - on drug treatment throughout this state, and particularly in Baltimore. We need to reach a point where every person addicted to drugs, insured or uninsured, gets treatment when they're ready or when the drug court judges send them there.

Treatment on demand brings more recovery. More recovery means less demand for cocaine and heroin. Less demand means, eventually, fewer drug dealers. Fewer dealers means less killing. And all that means Baltimore gets to shake its reputation for heroin and homicide. Families benefit. The whole region benefits.

Meanwhile, the culture of corrections needs to change; we need to break the ineffective and dangerous warehouse system. The Ehrlich administration should expand its comprehensive offender re-entry efforts to prepare thousands of inmates for a healthy return to society.

Reformed dealers and recovering addicts, lost for years in the drug world, need help finding themselves, their skills and decent jobs. The governor, who enjoys the Maryland business community's attention, needs to challenge the private sector to step up and consider hiring ex-offenders.

Otherwise, we're wasting a great human resource in our midst and doing nothing but pushing an expensive revolving door.

We can make a big dent in the drug culture. A lot of people seem primed for this.

More than a 100 Baltimoreans have contacted The Sun during the past six weeks to express a desire to get out of the game. They called for help finding the full-time jobs they believe will keep them from returning to the streets.

Brief profiles of some follow. Companies or individuals interested in a job application from any of these men - or getting more information about the quiet, effective programs that focus on helping ex-offenders - should contact me at 410-332- 6166, or by e-mail at dan.rod ricks@baltsun.com.

Gerald Patterson

At 37, Patterson says he hasn't been incarcerated in four years, hasn't sold drugs in three - "I'm too scared to do that now" - and has been trying to do the right thing as a father of five children in West Baltimore. He worked for Jiffy Lube before taking a job with another company that went out of business. He hasn't had any luck returning to automobile maintenance, but would like that kind of work again. "I've done some construction, and I have carpentry skills," he says. "I worked for a demolition company, too. I can do a lot of things."

Andre Hairston

A one-time user and seller of heroin, Hairston, 43, is assistant house manager of a recovery center in West Baltimore. He says he's been clean for a few months and feels ready to get back to work. He has experience in home improvement and in cooking.

Robert Bell

On home detention and living with his parents in Baltimore County since Dec. 1, Bell, 39, is likely to be released early next year. He's in his third year of recovery from a heroin addiction; his last criminal conviction was for burglary. "I'm a very hard worker who got hooked on heroin," Bell says, "and my life went to hell." He is allowed out of home detention for a job. He says he is experienced in welding, concrete finishing and metal fabrication.

Alvin Cunningham

Living with his mother and stepfather in East Baltimore, Cunningham is 18 "and trying to stay out of trouble." He says he has a juvenile record and that his most recent offense, from earlier this year, was a drug charge. Cunningham seeks a custodial or warehouse job. I suggested he secure his GED.

Kevin Gambrill

He managed to work for 14 years as a cook while supporting a heroin habit. "But I started stealing to pay for my heroin," says Gambrill, 39, explaining how his streak of steady employment ended. He served more than 3 1/2 years in prison for theft and returned to West Baltimore, his wife and four children a year ago. Gambrill takes methadone each day to control his heroin dependency. He is still unemployed but earnestly seeking a fresh start in a restaurant kitchen.

Kenneth Johnson

An East Baltimore resident, Johnson is 43 and started snorting heroin 20 years ago. He became involved in its distribution, too. That led to five stints in prison, the last one six years long. He was paroled 18 months ago, and he says he's clean. He wants to return to work as a roofer.

Sean Wright

"It's hard to get a job and take care of my family," says Wright, 36, about his search for work. Wright's record includes drug and handgun charges, the last one in 1998. Released from prison in 2003, Wright had a job at a supermarket warehouse in Jessup until May, when he was arrested on an outstanding warrant for an old motor vehicle violation. He spent three days in Baltimore's Central Booking and Intake Facility. Though relatives called his employer to explain his absence, Wright says, he lost his job. "I wish I had that job back. At least they were willing to give me a chance. ... I can do just about anything. I learn fast."

Anthony Peterson

Married with one child and a grandchild in his care, Peterson is 46 years old and supervisor of a parking lot that will be closed in about six months. "I'm going to have to find something new, and I don't care what it is, as along as it's steady," he says. Peterson once sold drugs, but says he got out of that business seven years ago. "I just want to be a productive person," he says, "and go forward, not backwards."