Boot-camp inmates begin hard work of job-hunting State sponsors on-site job fair


Jerome Harris will be looking for a job soon. In these lean economic times, it's a challenge, even with the best of credentials.

But Harris, who has been convicted of dealing drugs, enters the job market with a lot going against him.

In his opinion, the one thing he's got on his side is the six months he's spent in the Herman L. Toulson Correctional Camp in Jessup, a Marine Corps-style boot camp for convicted criminals.

Yesterday Harris and about 20 of his fellow inmates at the camp

learned that their ex-offender status won't make them unemployable.

Recruiters from some of the largest employers in the area, including Hechinger, Marriott Corp. and Caldor, attended a state-sponsored job fair at the camp to explore hiring some graduates of the innovative correctional program.

The premise of the Herman L. Toulson Correctional Camp, which began in August 1990, is to promote self-discipline, self-esteem and a work ethic through a rigorous six-month military-style basic training program. The program accepts only non-violent, first-time offenders.

At the job fair employers and inmates had a chance to question each other about expectations and opportunities. Each group came away with a better understanding of the other's concerns.

"I feel more confident as far as how employers feel about ex-offenders; I feel like getting a job is not impossible," said Harris, 20, who has experience in landscaping and would like to find a similar job once he leaves the camp Feb. 20. "A lot of offenders just need a chance to help them on their way," Harris said.

The job fair is organized by the state Department of Economic and Employment Development and is part of a pilot program to expand support services for boot camp graduates. Starting Friday, the state will begin workshops at camp, to teach inmates about job applications, resumes and interviewing techniques.

The idea behind the job fair is to increase the inmates' chances of finding work after they leave the camp. Few graduates get a job before they complete their supervised parole period, said Leonard Sipes, director of public information for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

Employment recruiters from Hechinger and Amvets attended the fair as did four recruiters from consulting firms, representing about 50 companies. State employment officials will schedule interviews for inmates in the next couple weeks and hope that between five and 10 camp graduates will be hired by companies attending the job fair.

"This is a group that's really difficult to place," said David Ghee, coordinator of the state's targeted jobs tax credit unit. "It's always hard for ex-offenders but it's extremely hard at this point in time.

"I think these people have a much better chance of getting jobs than other inmates," he said of camp graduates. "It imposes the discipline you need to get up and hit a clock every day and they're used to taking orders."

Recruiters got a glimpse of the camp's sense of order on a tour of the facility. Inmates with shaved heads stood to attention as a sergeant led the visitors through immaculate barracks. Bunks were made up and clothes neatly folded.

At the panel discussion inmates were asked how spending six months at the camp had changed their work habits.

"Before this inmate came to the program, this inmate had poor time management. Now this inmate can be punctual and complete a given task," an inmate answered.

Recruiters told the inmates not to conceal their criminal convictions from potential employers. They also gave them tips on getting the attention of an employer who receives hundreds of applications for one job.

"When you fill out the application, explain the positive side of being an inmate; write about the Maryland Boot Camp and carry the name of a reference from the camp with you," said Leslie Bradley, an employment specialist with Hechinger. Above all, he told the inmates, be motivated.

As far as Jerome Harris is concerned he's mastered that skill.

"It teaches you to have motivation at all times and never to quit," Harris said of the camp. "The day you quit might be the day you get the job."

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