Prison Programs Help Inmates Cope, Prepare for Future
Carroll County Times

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SYKESVILLE - Harold Ferguson is looking forward to getting out.

Ferguson, 62 and in prison for 24 years, is scheduled to be released in April 2012.

After so many years of taking showers behind bars, the Washington, D.C., native said the first things he plans to do is to take a long bath in a tub, then eat some seafood.

It doesn't really matter what kind, he said with a chuckle.

As he talks, Ferguson quickly folds towels on a large stainless-steel table in the muggy air of the laundry room in the Central Maryland Correctional Facility in Sykesville.

Folding towels is a benefit for prisoners preparing to transition back into society, he said.

His work at the laundry facility has given him skills that will come in handy if he can find a job at a cleaners or somewhere else in the industry.

Run by Maryland Correctional Enterprises, the industrial arm of the Division of Correction, the laundry serves the prison system, state hospitals, Maryland State Police and other state facilities, as well as nonprofit entities such as local nursing homes.

The plant cleans approximately 2 million pounds of laundry per year and employs about 100 inmates in any given month, said Capt. Blake Haulsee, who helps oversee the laundry operation.

Some of the work is more manual in nature.

"Sorting clothes, folding towels. It's not rocket science," said Haulsee.

But many of the machines must have their instructions programmed in by computer, teaching inmates the types of skills they'll need if they're hired to work in a commercial laundry once they're released.

MCE also offers a program called MCE Continuing Allocation of Re-entry Services.

The program offers help with employment readiness; assisting inmates obtain housing, employment, family support and access to medical, mental health and substance abuse services; and training inmates to improve their thought processes, to help control their behavior.

Once an inmate gets within about two years of his release date, he can be transferred to Sykesville, one of several such facilities located around the state, said David Jenkins, director of re-entry services for the Division of Correction.

The program wants people to go out the door ready to go to work, he said. To help them prepare, Jenkins' program can get inmates an identification card, a new birth certificate and other paperwork to ease their transition back into the world outside.

At some point, most inmates will be released, and making sure they have marketable skills can substantially ease their transition into life outside the chain-link fences lined with coils of razor wire.

Teaching work ethic

According to the Division of Correction's Fiscal Year 2010 annual report, inmates employed by Maryland Correctional Enterprises have a recidivism rate of less than 25 percent, significantly lower than for other prisoners.

The Division of Correction operates more than 30 facilities around Maryland, ranging from maximum security facilities to minimum security and pre-release prisons where inmates can prepare to phase back into society.

Inmates are assigned to a security level based on factors including the nature of their offense and the length of their sentence, said Erin Julius, a DOC spokeswoman.

At the Maryland Correctional Training Center in Hagerstown, a long, low building houses a number of vocational teaching spaces.

In the space for residential construction, instructor Bob Jenkins oversees prisoners learning everything from ways of building forms to framing a house, roofing, siding, building a porch or deck and doing interior trim.

If a former inmate gets a job with a general contractor, he or she may be doing all of these things, Jenkins said. Or they may specialize in one skill or another.

Next door, Paul Willard oversees a group of inmates learning the basics of laying brick and block.

Everyone can basically lay brick when they leave the six-month program, said Willard.

The inmates also get a first-year apprenticeship. If they get a union job when they get out, they already have the first year done of a three-year apprenticeship, and get a card and certificate they can show an employer, Willard explained.

And there are other lessons being taught as well.

"Just because you know how to lay brick doesn't mean you have to do it," Willard said. "But it does teach you work ethics."

Peace with religion

Chaplain Bob Lashinsky knows that many times his most important job is just to listen.

"If you let a person talk long enough, they'll come up with an answer," he said.

Since 2004, Lashinsky has been the chaplain at the Maryland Correctional Training Center.

Overall, the state's Division of Correction accommodates inmates practicing 33 diverse religions, and lockers in the back of the chapel/fellowship hall at MCTC hold supplies for a number of them, ranging from Jewish to Protestant, Islamic and Jehovah's Witness.

Working for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, Lashinsky performs services for the Catholic and Native American inmates at the three state prison facilities clustered in Hagerstown just south of Interstate 70.

He also lends an ear to their personal problems, many of which revolve around their families.

If you help inmates deal with those issues, they tend to be better prisoners, he said.

Lashinsky takes the responsibility seriously. Celebrating their respective religion is an inmate's right, not a privilege, he said. It gives many inmates a peace that helps them better adapt to their surroundings.

Wising up

Prisoners in DOC can choose to go two ways, said Marquis Dixon, 18, of Baltimore, in his second year of a six-year sentence for armed robbery.

The system gives you the chance to get an education and wise up, he said. Or you can advance your knowledge for a life of crime.

"Some people, they only come to prison because they need a break from the streets," Dixon said.

He said he wants to get a job in a warehouse and go to college when he's released.

People on the street can call you lame or a square if you go to school and stay out of trouble, he said.

But he thinks it can be worth it.

"Squares and lames are the ones who's home right now."

Chance to reunite

Prison cost James Hawkins a chance to be with his family during one of the most trying times a father could face.

When his young son died in a house fire earlier this year, Hawkins wasn't able to attend the funeral.

Hawkins, 35, is serving a sentence in Sykesville of approximately four years for assault.

A prisoner's day is controlled from the minute he wakes up until the minute he goes to bed.

They're told when to shower, when to eat and what clothes they're allowed to wear.

Now, Hawkins said he wants nothing more than to finish up his sentence and reunite with his family in Charles County, hopefully, finding work in his former field as a heavy equipment operator.

"Prison is definitely not a place that any sane human being would want to be," Hawkins said.