WESTOVER — Career and resource fairs that offer employment, workforce development, counseling and educational services are not uncommon especially during this era of low unemployment but for the first time at Eastern Correctional Institution one was held behind bars.
Some 400 minimum security inmates at the ECI Annex had the opportunity to step up to an employer’s table and learn about available positions and fill out an application, or speak to a counselor or case manager about job training, housing availability or educational opportunities once released back into society.
As Re-entry and Transition Services Specialist Keisha Shreeves said this is another step for these men to get back into the community, connecting them with the resources they need to be successful “for their next journey home.”
There are educational and certification programs within the prison system which can be what employers want, or the foundation for additional training be it hands-on or through more classes at a community college.
Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services Secretary Robert L. Green said the over 30 groups taking part “make a connection and make a difference” to an inmate whether it’s with the health department or social services or to an employer like Perdue, which is already actively employing those on work-release.
“Everyone here is within five years of going home, some of them within months or weeks,” Secretary Green said, and this “is really pivotal with the job market where it is now.”
The diverse number of employers sought skills ranging from workers in a processing plant to those with specific abilities like diesel mechanics.
Even if an inmate didn’t make a connection, it’s good practice for the skill of selling themselves, finding out what’s required and seeing what’s available.
Secretary Green also said something like this shows the significant evolution of how correctional services is looking ahead to better meet the needs of an inmate upon re-entry into the community. It gives the inmates an understanding of what’s out there, and employers a look at the potential workforce available.
“We’re not referring people out to a program they’re not ready for,” he said. “All of these gentlemen are ready to go,” with some having earned certificates through Maryland Correctional Enterprises which has furniture refinishing and other trades at ECI.
Joshua Blank of Snow Hill said he’s on the road crew but is certified installing insulating glass. If he doesn’t get back into that line of work or something related to construction he has a brother in landscaping so he’s already looking ahead to being out of the Annex.
With three months before his release date, he said has no plans to come back.
Another inmate being released in the coming months is Eddie Neal of Crisfield. Starting on the road crew picking up trash not only was the start of a daily routine outside of the Annex but he advanced to different assignments including setup at the Hebron Carnival and Wicomico County Fair.
“I met a lot of great people,” he said, describing how during the COVID-19 pandemic there wasn’t anything to do. “Thing started to open up” and this kind of work is preparing him for his next step. Neal said he would encourage more events like this at the Annex so everyone can see what the opportunities are because so many want to contribute and do better for their families.
One of those taking part from the Western Shore was formerly housed at the Annex but this time was back as a case manager with the Damascus House which operates the RISTORe Program. Mark Harris said RISTORe stands for “Rehabilitating Individuals So They Overcome Recidivism” and works to connect newly-released persons both men and women with housing, counseling services and workforce development.
“We have an incredible selection” of participating businesses and agencies, Secretary Green said of last month's event. “Ultimately the end goal is to connect individuals that are going home back to our communities to connect them with jobs.”