Making pizzas for slightly more than minimum wage — it's not a job that puts a spring in the step of a middle-aged man who has lived the life of a drug dealer.
“It's a humbling experience, to say the least,” says the man, a resident at the Montgomery County Pre-Release Center (PRC), a halfway house in the Washington suburb of Rockville, Md. “The money I make in a week, I used to make that in a couple of hours.”
The man, who asks to be called Mr. Nolton, tends to think carefully before he speaks. A couple of decades cycling in and out of jail and prison make you cautious, he explains. “Most of my adult life has been drug sales and incarceration,” he says. “Pretty much, I'm at the end of my rope, in the sense that I would like to have something wholesome in my life as well as make my family proud, and try to make the best of whatever ‘normal’ life is.”
A sculpture captures the mission of the Montgomery County Pre-Release Center: Lunchbox in hand, a former prisoner kisses his wife good-bye as he goes to work. (CQ Press/Peter Katel)
Mr. Nolton is fairly typical of the older residents at PRC, who are accepted in the final four to six months of their sentences. Although Maryland state prison inmates and some federal prisoners are allowed to apply, Montgomery County jail inmates make up the majority of the approximately 170 residents at the center, most of whom have been incarcerated previously. The center sits just a block from the shopping centers and restaurants of bustling Rockville Pike. The nicely landscaped building looks like a small office and bears no identification as an outpost of the Montgomery County Correction and Rehabilitation Department.
“The population here is exactly representative of the population of the jail,” says Director Stefan LoBuglio. PRC staff evaluate applicants for potential danger to the community, but the center is willing to accept people with long criminal records if there is evidence they can be trusted to stay out of trouble.
Founded in 1969 and well-known to advocates of prisoner reentry programs, the center emphasizes the practical in getting its residents — don't call them inmates — ready for the outside world. They start off living in two-person rooms, not cells or dormitories, and residents can earn their way up a waiting list for a single room with private bathroom by following rules, which include looking for a job every day until finding one.
To be sure, staff members wear badges on their belts, unauthorized departure is classified as escape and residents are tested for alcohol three times a day and for drugs three times a week. But such restrictions come off as fairly mild to people whose days were filled until recently with the sounds of cell doors clanking, and with outdoor views of fences and barbed wire.
Above all, while prisons and jails are designed mainly to keep their populations locked up, the PRC's main mission is to help residents get out of jail and stay out — by helping them find jobs. Because today's job-application process has become virtually totally Web-centric, all residents have access to computers — restricted to job searches — and are required to obtain free Hotmail e-mail addresses — to make monitoring easier.
Residents at the Montgomery County center can use computers only for job searches. Computer training and help with résumé writing are also available. (CQ Press/Peter Katel)
Residents who need computer training get instructions in Web navigation and associated skills. Those who need help in regaining their driver's licenses can call on PRC staff for that as well.
And the center offers guidance in résumé-writing. “We have a lady who comes in on Wednesday,” Work Release Coordinator Hillel Raskas tells a class of new arrivals. “She can make a résumé for anybody.”
Raskas hands out a sample résumé that lists a “Career Exploration Certificate” from the Maryland Education Department at Jessup, Md. That's the location of a state prison, but leaving out that bit of information is all right, he says. He adds, though, that when an application asks about a criminal record, fill in the correct information. “Write, ‘Will explain in interview.’ Do not lie, do not leave it blank.”
Some lucky residents have former jobs to go back to. One young man is expecting to return to a catering business. Another, also barely out of his teens, said a cousin had arranged a supermarket job.
On a recent afternoon, a resident in his 20s walks into Unit Manager Chris Johnson's office and tells her with a big smile that he's landed a job after six weeks of looking — a $10-an-hour gig in a call center. “I probably could have gotten a job quicker if I didn't set my sights so high,” he says. His ambition was understandable. Before he was sentenced to about five years on a drug conviction, he had been a computer engineering student.
Was his criminal record a problem in landing the job? “No, they're understaffed and overloaded,” he tells Johnson. Still, she calls to verify the job offer and to make sure the employer knows of the young man's conviction. Everything checks out, and within days the man starts working.
While Mr. Nolton admits he does get a bit weary of the rules, he acknowledges that he owes a lot to the PRC. For one thing, the center banks his earnings, so he expects to have about $500 saved up by the time his sentence is up in five months. So he'll be able to rent a studio apartment.
“This place is really based on the individual,” he says. “If you want to change your life and you want a good way back into the community, this is where you can do it at.”
— Peter Katel