BALTIMORE – Paul Banks is one of the lucky ones.
He knows that his conviction on drug and gun charges has already denied him any hope of becoming a cop, his childhood dream, and it will likely jeopardize the 21-year-old inmate’s chances for a normal life or self- sufficiency “on the outside.”
But Banks can read. He’s well-spoken, he has his GED and a slot in a post- prison detox program, luxuries not afforded most of the state’s prisoners, who often walk out with nothing more than the clothes they walked in with and $3 from the state.
Many more inmates are like Terrell Peacock. Although he is in the prime of his life, he has only a middle school education and knows he will carry the stigma of his prison record when he tries to adjust to life outside the fence.
The spry, smiling man — just “Peacock” to his fellow inmates — knows the odds are stacked against him when he returns to the community.
“As ex-offenders coming out of prison, ain’t nobody going to give us nothing,” he said.
Peacock is right. A variety of social services that are available to other needy residents are off-limits to ex-convicts.
The Baltimore City Public Housing Authority bans those who have been convicted of drug-related or violent crimes.
Drug offenders who get temporary cash assistance or food stamps must submit to two years of drug testing — an unmanageable task for the large number of inmates who are thrown back into the community without an initial stay at an expensive detox center.
And since Sept. 11, many employers have instituted mandatory criminal background checks and will exclude ex-offenders from consideration.
The effect of those regulations on an already unprepared and marginalized population is disastrous, advocates say.
“Cumulatively, with all the other things happening, it’s devastating,” said Phil Holmes, spokesman for Goodwill Industries of the Chesapeake, which provides pre- and post-release transitional services to offenders in Maryland.
A prison record gives the public “this idea that you’ve (the inmate) done something horrible” even if their only offense was being a drug addict, Holmes said.
“And then when you come out you’re really up against it,” he said.
But the majority of state inmates leave prison with very little practical preparation for their release. Sixty percent of the state’s inmates do not have a high-school diploma when they enter the prison system, but only 17 percent participate in educational or vocational training while inside.
In 2001, the Division of Corrections reported that nearly one third of Maryland’s inmates spent their entire sentence “idle,” meaning they did not participate in any type of programming while inside the prison walls.
Mary Ann Saar, the state’s new corrections secretary, said she plans to improve the re-integration process for the state’s inmates.
“They are going to be living on the margins. They need a hand,” Saar said.
She said treatment and education programs for inmates will be a top priority.
“It is tough for these people coming out and we need to connect them to services inside and outside of prison,” Saar said. “We can’t keep pushing them off of a cliff. That doesn’t serve our bottom line of public safety because then they cycle back to us in the long run.”
Sometimes, not even the long run: Recent state corrections data shows that more than half the prisoners released in Maryland commit new crimes and return to the system within three years of release. A recent Urban Institute analysis of the state’s prison population found that 70 percent of the 9,448 prisoners released in 2001 had been in prison at least once before, some of them four or more times.
Saar sees education and treatment initiatives as “a tremendous assistance to everyone” and said social programs, among other things, will determine whether ex-offenders will “take up the mantle of being a good citizen or become a problem” after release.
But for now, the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services is facing the same financial squeeze as the rest of state government, and Saar said her stand-pat budget leaves her unable to effect any immediate changes. In the meantime, she said, she plans to work with the State Department of Education to “beat the bushes for alternative funding” for prison programs.
Advocates say that without the helping hand that Saar talked about, prisoners will continue to stream from Maryland’s prisons unprepared for life outside the fence. Many will return to the only life they have known, a life of crime.
“They give up before they even get started. It’s easier to go back” to that lifestyle than it is for an uneducated and ill-prepared inmate to face the challenges ahead, said Yusef El.
El, a former convict, tries to help current inmates with that transition. He is an instructor for Supporting Ex-Offenders in Employment Training and Transitional Services, a two-year-old program run by Goodwill inside the Metropolitan Transitional Center walls.
For seven weeks this spring, a small group of inmates — including Banks and Peacock — met weekly in SEETTS classes to work on their resumes, run through mock job interviews, talk about what to expect on the outside, and criticize or support one another, as the situation demanded.
At just 22, Peacock knows he’s up against a lot and worries about his future.
SEETTS helps, and El is pushing Peacock to get his GED. But without acceptance into a residential drug treatment program, Peacock, a former addict, fears he may be homeless in October, when he is scheduled to be released.
“It do get hectic out there, being on parole. I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Peacock said. “Unless you’re a psychic, you don’t know what’s going to happen.” -30- CNS 04