Event focuses on helping felons return to workplace after release

Event focuses on helping felons return to workplace after release.

Anthony Epps struggled to find steady employment when he was released from prison last year.

The Randallstown resident found occasional work at a temporary job placement agency, but he wanted a full-time job. It wasn't easy as a two-time felon.

Luckily for Epps, he participated in Elevation — a program that taught him Spanish and world history and put him in contact with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake — while incarcerated for attempted murder. Those skills and contacts fostered a drive in Epps that has taken him to his current job as a food runner at a downtown Baltimore bar and restaurant.

"I know I have it in me," he said. "I have good people around me to keep me afloat."

Epps' story was one of many shared Saturday at Impact Hub Baltimore in Station North for Re-entry Design and Data Day, an event focused on helping Baltimore residents with arrest and conviction records navigate back into society. The 100 participants included "returning citizens" (people with arrest or conviction records), police officers, service providers, tech experts, social workers and community members.

Participants were split into smaller groups that discussed and formulated plans to address gaps between needs and services. Data were analyzed to identify re-entry needs. Other groups studied ways that the city can improve in communication of services, community re-engagement, family reunification, documentation and benefits, and mental and emotional support assistance.

The day was organized by Mission: Launch Inc., a Maryland-based nonprofit whose goal is to provide services for returning citizens, and Baltimore City Accelerator, in conjunction with the Citi Foundation/Living Cities challenge team, which is sponsored by the Mayor's Office on Criminal Justice.

After Saturday's event, data from the participants will be used to develop programs and strategies to better assist people transitioning back into society. The hope by Mission: Launch Inc. is to eventually have the best practices implemented at a national level.

"We're 100 percent focused on prison re-entry. We want to find efficient ways to get people on their feet quickly," said Teresa Y. Hodge, co-founder and executive vice president of Mission: Launch Inc., which she runs with her daughter Laurin, who serves as the group's president.

The Hodges know the realities of re-entering society.

In January 2007, Teresa started serving 70 months in federal prison for mail fraud. She also served three years of probation and spent six months in a halfway house.

"This is built out of our experiences," she said, adding that she considers herself fortunate in that she had a supportive family and resources that enabled her to have a job when she was released from prison. "I heard from other women. ... This population is not voiceless, it doesn't have a platform."

The prison industry and voting rights for felons remain hot topics.

This month, the Maryland legislature overturned Gov. Larry Hogan's veto of a bill to extend voting rights to felons before they complete probation and parole. As a result, more than 40,000 recently released Maryland felons will regain the right to vote in time for this year's election. And on Thursday, Hogan announced that money he initially proposed for a new Baltimore jail should instead pay for projects at state universities.

Hodge thinks the region is heading in the right direction.

"Prison should not be about a lifetime sentence," she said. "There's no reason to disenfranchise millions of people. In one sense you are saying, 'You don't matter.' Education is the key. I'm a firm believer that if more opportunity was available, less people would go to prison and go back to prison. Building more jails will not reduce crime."

Joseph Cureton, who was released from prison after three years, is launching a staffing firm to help returning citizens find employment.

"When you come out of jail, you're in the hole. The drive is there, but it is hard to claw your way out," said Cureton, who declined to say why he was imprisoned. "I hope that Baltimore realizes things like this are happening and going on."

john-john.williams@baltsun.com

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