A second chance is their first priority

The Baltimore Sun

How is everything on the outside?" Willie Turner asks in a letter from Western Maryland. "I will be an ex-offender when I hit the streets in the year of 2012. So now I need your help please. I was told to write to you for an ex-offender job package that will help me get a job once I am out. I do not want to go back to prison. This is my first time and it is hell.

"Well, I did do it myself," he added, not saying what "it" was. "But now I know that crime does not pay off no kind-of-way. And the prisons are gotten [sic] worse. If you have questions, please write, or just send me the job package please."

Willie's return address is the Western Correctional Institution, our maximum-security prison in Cumberland.

His letter fell out of a pile of prison mail that has been building on my desk for the past six months.

Since first offering, in June 2005, to provide ex-offenders with information about jobs and job-training services - with the outrageous idea that this might actually reduce crime in Baltimore and maybe even lower the state's rate of incarceration - nearly 6,000 men and women have contacted The Sun for help.

A good many of those seeking information about employment, housing and drug treatment are still in our prisons, jails and detention centers.

"My current situation finds me with no outside support, homeless and jobless," wrote Adolphus Smith from Baltimore's jail annex. "I have been proactive since being in here contacting shelters and rehab programs. ... A return to my pre-incarceration lifestyle is not an option. My background includes management (Dollar Store + warehouse), forklift, night stock, deli counter, waiter, car detail high line. I am open to any and all opportunities."

Most of those who write from prison have a date for release.

Most seem to be serving terms ranging from five to 20 years. Most say they have been incarcerated for drug-related offenses, though the mail includes letters from inmates serving life terms for murder.

Most don't seem to have a clue about what to do when they get out of prison, and they say the Maryland prison system has done little to prepare them for the great outdoors.

The majority claim to have no place to live after release.

Many say they are estranged from family - or have no relatives who can support them once they get out of prison.

"I am about to be released in six months," wrote Robert McBee, also housed at the WCI. "I am writing you myself since I have nobody to call or e-mail you for the resource packet."

They all have earnestness about them but express fears they will never be able to find employment because of their criminal records.

"I am about to be released," wrote William Ketchum from a transition center in Baltimore. "I don't have anywhere to stay or work. And me being a ex-offender it will be tougher."

"I have atless [sic] another year but I am trying to prepaid myself because I am sure a lot has changed in the 16 years that I've been incarcerated," wrote another Maryland inmate, Lamont Smith. "I am writing [for] information on programs that assist ex-offenders that are re-entering society wanting to be a productive member of society and not apart of the recidivism rate."

Fears of relapse into drug abuse and criminal activity are well-founded.

One of the reasons the United States leads the world in incarceration, with one out of every 100 adults in prison or jail now, is that too many offenders violate the conditions of their probation - usually by committing new crimes. More than half return to the system within three years of release.

Some do this because they remain addicted to drugs and binge upon release.

Some are just ignorant, arrogant and stubbornly criminal.

But many try to adjust to the outside world and fail.

Too many cannot find employment - always a serious problem, but more pronounced since the terrorist attacks of 2001, as thresholds for security rose across the country. Many companies large and small refuse to hire adults with criminal records, even those whose offenses date from seven to 10 years ago.

In Maryland, we can expect even more ex-offenders returning to the Division of Correction as the O'Malley administration launches a new effort to identify potential parole violators and get them off the street if they so much as spit on it. "Improving public safety in our neighborhoods and communities is the most important duty we have as a state," Gov. Martin O'Malley, the former prosecutor, said Friday. (The FBI reported in January nationwide drops in violent crimes and property crime in 2007, with significant declines in rape, robbery and homicides.)

O'Malley vetoed a bill last year that would have reduced mandatory sentences for nonviolent drug offenders from 20 to 10 years, but the administration has proposed adding only $5 million to the state budget for drug treatment.

The lack of drug treatment is one of the reasons the prisons are full; men and women who should be hospitalized for their addictions are too often sent into the DOC. Polls show that most Americans support drug treatment over incarceration, yet throughout the heroin epoch and the crack surge, Democratic and Republican administrations alike took corrections out of corrections and adopted a hard line to score points with voters. Taxpayers funded new prisons when we should have been building hospitals.

So, here we are, with one out of 100 behind bars.

Dan Rodricks hosts Midday from noon to 2 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays on WYPR-FM, 88.1.

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