Career fair helps inmates plan for life beyond prison

The Baltimore Sun

It wasn't the typical career fair - recruiters from such groups as Prisoners Aid and the Federal Bonding Program set up tables with information packets on options for life after prison.

But for about 250 Jessup inmates who attended, it showed that someone still has faith in them.

Take, for instance, Michael Williams, who's 38 and serving an 18-year sentence for drug charges. He went to the fair to learn about taking a seminar on starting a small business.

Then there's Garfield Patterson, 31, who plans to tutor middle and high school children - despite the nearly seven-year sentence he will have served once he's released.

Williams and Patterson represent only a smattering of the inmates at the Maryland Correctional Institution in Jessup who saw yesterday's Career Fest as an opportunity to change their lives once they leave the prison bars behind.

"Prison is not a good place to be, but you got guys here who want to change," said Demetrius Johnson, who is 37 and expecting release in the spring. Johnson has taken computer graphics courses while serving his sentence and plans to continue his education once he's released.

"I never thought this many people would come together to help us. A lot of people have given up on us.

"When you see support like this, it makes you feel like not everybody's given up on you."

The Career Fest, a state event held each year at various prisons in Maryland, was held for the first time at the Maryland Correctional Institution in Jessup - a medium-security men's prison - yesterday.

The event has been around almost a decade, said Diana Bailey, work force development coordinator for the state Department of Education.

Organizers say such programs are vital - without them, inmates have few decent options in an employment world that turns its back to convicted felons.

"Over 90 percent of inmates within the department will be released," said Carolyn A. Atkins, the prison's warden. "They have to start planning. There are things they can do to prepare."

Almost 15,000 inmates were formally released from Maryland prisons in 2007, according to the Maryland Division of Correction. Of the inmates released in 2002 who were tracked for three years, about 50 percent ended up back in the system, either with a new probation or a new charge.

Jack Weber, president of Uptown Press printing company in Baltimore, said he has hired ex-offenders for about 20 years through the Occupational Skills Training Center, a Baltimore program that works with soon-to-be-released inmates to teach them trade skills and help prepare them for the working world.

"I personally have been promoting the whole program because it makes sense, and it's been successful for me," Weber said. "But there are risks involved."

Over time, Weber has hired about 40 ex-offenders, and he said probably three-fourths of them have been successful. He said he personally interviews all the ex-offenders and looks for basic work skills, like good communication, positive attitudes and friendliness.

"It's quite rewarding to see a young man or young woman who gets out of jail and makes that transition," Weber said. "I believe in a God of second chances."

Weber said employers can also benefit from hiring ex-offenders, especially in the printing industry, which is finding it increasingly difficult to find employees through trade schools.

"We need to find new ways to find qualified employees to work the machinery," he said. "You want to have someone competent on that piece of equipment."

The Department of Education hosted the fair with the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. About 25 recruiters attended the event, including those from local community colleges, career and training centers and the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

Johnson hopes the resources he picked up about Baltimore City Community College will help him when he is released. He plans to enroll in more advanced computer graphics courses to supplement the class he has already taken in prison. Before, his only other option was carpentry, he said.

"When I first started that class, I was computer-illiterate," Johnson said.

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