Every year, more than 600,000 people return to neighborhoods across America after serving time behind bars, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Far too often, the obstacles they face in civilian life lead them right back to jail. But justice officials, lawmakers and outside groups are teaming up to help former inmates find success outside of prison, which can be hard to come by.
“It’s not easy to get everything that you need when you’re coming from incarceration,” said Brooke Grossman, associate director of workforce development for Horizon Goodwill Industries, an organization that aims to assist inmates returning to civilian life through job coaching and employment opportunities. “You need housing, you need income, you need medical insurance.”
To get all of those things, you need a job – which becomes even harder to get when a potential boss finds out you were found guilty of a crime.
“Employers look at that background, and say, ‘I don’t know if I want to take a chance on that person,’” Grossman added.
These circumstances can easily lead to a former inmate just giving up, and potentially becoming a repeat offender. While corrections officials said Maryland has a much lower rate of recidivism than the nation as a whole, it still leads to higher prison populations in the state.
In 2016, Maryland state lawmakers passed the Justice Reinvestment Act to fight overcrowding. One part of that bill allows drug users to get treatment, instead of jail time.
“It’s a choice to commit a crime,” said Del. Brett Wilson (R-District 2B, Washington County). “But some of that is driven by addiction, some of it is driven by a lack of education, lack of understanding, lack of the skills that many of us have learned as we grow up.”
Outside of Annapolis, and inside state prisons like the Maryland Correctional Training Center (MCTC) in Hagerstown, corrections officials understand that change has to begin there.
“For years, a lot of the prison systems had [policies of] ‘lock them up, and throw away the key,’” said Michael Lichtenberg, pre-release manager at MCTC. “We found that just didn’t work.”
Through various re-entry programs, there is an increased push to get inmates ready to hit the ground running once they are released.
“The re-entry process starts when they come into the system, not when they’re near the end of the system,” explained Tom Nittinger, case manager at MCTC.
Inside the borders of MCTC, you will find classrooms where inmates work to get their GED’s, get state vehicles ready for the road, build furniture to go inside the soon-to-be-expanded Maryland Theatre and harvest crops that are sent to local food banks.
No matter their interest or skill set, it’s all about boosting their resumes before they are even released.
“We give you the tools, we give you the wood – but you still have to build the house,” Lichtenberg said. “I think that’s the responsibility of corrections. We have to at least give that opportunity, we have to at least give them the tools and the resources to try to better themselves.”
“But in the end, it’s up to them.”
After they get out of jail, there are plenty of outside groups that are there to help, as well. One of them is Horizon Goodwill Industries, which features expungement programs and on-boarding classes to allow participants to learn what they need to know on the job.
“[Things like] do I come to work on time, what is my attitude in the workplace, how do I handle conflict, how do I communicate effectively?” Grossman explained.
Participants go to these classes on their own time, to get accepted into Goodwill’s job training programs. It’s just one example of a path towards self-worth and independence, and away from those familiar prison gates.
“We’re able to be the holder of hope for some of those people,” Grossman said. “To say that it is going to get better, it is possible.”
Most of the provisions in Maryland’s Justice Reinvestment Act will go into effect in October.