Maryland is trying to prepare inmates with skills and education to help them get a job after release

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Stacie Arbegust knows she will have a tough time finding a job once she gets out of prison. As an inmate who hopes to be freed this summer, Arbegust says she is well aware that many employers won't hire her.

But with computer-repair skills, workplace knowhow and a General Educational Development diploma - all acquired at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup - Arbegust said she has turned her life around and is ready for a job. She also is prepared for rejection.

"I'm dependable, I'm a very hard worker," said Arbegust, 40, who has a parole hearing scheduled for July after serving a year on a six-year sentence after a drug distribution conviction. "I feel like it'll be a loss for [employers if they don't hire me]. There will be rejection, but I'm going to keep going forward."

Aware of the realities facing former offenders looking for jobs, correctional and education officials are preparing thousands of inmates like Arbegust with occupational skills, continuing education and job-readiness classes. Some employers will consider candidates with criminal records, but many will not because they are concerned with safety and liability.

Each year, about 13,000 inmates leave Maryland prisons. (Hundreds more are released from county detention centers and the city jail.) Because former offenders already face the stigma of having a record, men and women leaving the prison system need to have marketable job skills and a strong work ethic to impress employers, experts and advocates say.

"In any population group, the more education and training you have, the more economic self-sufficiency you have," said Diana Bailey, a work-force development and transition coordinator for the state's correctional education program. "With any barriers they may have, it's trying to balance out the bad things. You have to have more of the good stuff to get into the door."

For employers willing to give former offenders a chance, they say decisions are usually based on each individual's circumstance.

Global shipping giant UPS hires ex-offenders on a case-by-case basis, said spokeswoman Ronna Branch. While it conducts background checks on all potential employees, the company also reviews an former offender's crime, how recent the offense was committed and how relevant it is to certain positions. For instance, someone with a driving-under-the-influence conviction most likely is ruled out for a position as a driver.

"We try to make sure everyone gets a fair shake," Branch said.

Christy Visher, a research associate at the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center in Washington, said employment plays a key role in an former offender's success back in the community. A combination of factors such as support and substance-abuse treatment help reduce recidivism, but research has shown that "people who are employed are less likely to return to prison," Visher said.

A study by the Correctional Education Association found that attending classes behind bars reduces the likelihood of being incarcerated again by 29 percent. The study examined the impact of prison education on post-release employment and recidivism among more than 3,600 ex-offenders in Maryland, Minnesota and Ohio.

But many former offenders trying to re-enter the work force have little education and little to no work experience, experts say. In Maryland, the average reading level of about 23,000 state inmates is between sixth and eighth grade, according to the State Department of Education.

"So when employers are looking at all potential candidates, it's difficult to look at Person A with these problems," Visher said. "It's easier to go with Person B."

In Maryland's prisons, inmates are completing courses in auto body repair, building maintenance, data processing and commercial roofing. In some cases, they are getting certified in those trades before they get out.

Others are enrolled in GED classes, basic and special education and literacy programs.

Besides occupational training and education, inmates are learning the finer details of the workplace: writing resumes, interviewing, appropriate behavior, interpersonal skills and job retention skills.

Of the 23,000 state inmates, about 20 percent are in school behind bars or participating in occupational training, according to the State Department of Education. (Similar job-readiness training and education are provided at local jails.)

The state spends about $12 million a year on the correctional education program, and its budget has remained steady in the past several years. State money pays mostly for teachers and staffing needs, Bailey said.

Federal education funds and grants and proceeds from sales of commissary items in state prisons help support education and occupational training. However, that money is not stable from year to year, Bailey said.

"The fact is that we're limited in our capacity," said Tomi Hires, who's in charge of offender re-entry services for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. "Diana and her teachers would love to serve every single inmate who wants it."

At a job readiness program last week at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women, about 40 female inmates got a chance to put their lessons into practice in mock interviews with local employers and community organizations.

Interviewers posed questions to each inmate about skills and experience, strengths and desired jobs. And the hard question: Can you explain your criminal conviction?

Arbegust tried to be upfront in a mock interview with Rick Silber, president of City Group Inc., a Jessup distributor of cleaning supplies and equipment. "I had a drug addiction," she said. "Inside, I turned a negative situation into a positive. I got a GED. ... I will complete a certificate in computer repair."

Silber, a member of the Maryland Advisory Council on Offender Employment Coordination, advises inmates to be honest.

"You don't need to say on this day, I did this," he told Arbegust. "Employers want to be comfortable that you won't be a threat to others in the workplace. The problem is when people hear you're an ex-offender, they think you're carrying around a hatchet."

Overcoming that wariness among employers is one of the biggest challenges, say advocates, educators and correctional officials.

"We can't have 20,000 prisoners off the [payrolls] forever as they come off the correctional system," said Aris Melissaratos, secretary of the state Department of Business and Economic Development. "We have to have them trained, matched up to work and be productive members of society."

To that end, community groups are working with employers on job placements, and the city is completing a survey to gauge attitudes toward hiring ex-offenders. State economic officials say an education campaign launched last year is making progress.

Joy Giordano, president of the four-employee Distinctive Promotions, a business that imprints advertisements on products, is willing to hire ex-offenders if the opportunity comes up again. She has a successful track record with Cheryl Montoney, an former offender who was hired two years ago.

"I interviewed her, and I liked how she presented herself," Giordano said. "She allowed me to feel that she was taking a different direction in her life. We took it day by day."

Said Montoney: "More than anything, Joy was willing to give me a chance - an opportunity to prove myself."

Montoney, 46, of Glen Bernie, served 6 1/2 years at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women for a drug conviction before she was released in 2002. She had a string of jobs but hit a dead end when she was laid off.

"I was able to save money and get my life back on track, but [I was] getting turned down because of my criminal record," Montoney said.

A friend of Giordano who taught evening school in the state prison system recommended Montoney for the office manager job at Distinctive Promotions.

Giordano as well as Montoney participated in last week's mock interview event at the women's correctional facility. Montoney said she always wanted to return to help the female inmates and tell them: "There is life after prison. You could succeed."

hanah.cho@baltsun.com

PROGRAM NUMBERS

4,000 -- The number of inmates in school on a daily basis; more than 12,000 - or abut half the state's inmate population -- have no high school diploma.

65 percent -- The passing rate for a GED in the correctional education program.

857 -- The number of inmates who received a GED

918 -- The number of inmates who received an occupational certificate that qualifies them for a job after release.

173 -- Number of staff positions in the adult correctional education program.

SOURCE: STATE DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION, FY 2005.

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