BALTIMORE — Ernest E. Thomas spent two hours polishing his resume at the Jericho Reentry Program office one day last week. The ex-convict was preparing for a job interview at a grocery store. But first, he had to learn how to tie a tie.
At Jericho, a Baltimore City-based program that helps former prisoners get jobs, counselors start with the basics — how to dress for an interview, write a resume, fill out online job applications and prepare for interviews. Ex-offenders also acquire technical skills and get certified to work in areas like construction and the food industry.
Thomas, 41, is one of the 300 men Jericho helps every year. He came back home in September after spending 18 months in jail for distributing narcotics, according to interviews and court records. He completed Jericho’s job skill workshop last week and borrowed dress clothes from the program for his job interview.
“I feel confident going to the interview,” Thomas said after learning from a Jericho counselor how to tie a Windsor knot. “I’m ready to go in with my notes of what I learned.”
A criminal record and lack of skills can make it difficult for ex-offenders to get hired. Without a job, they have a higher chance of returning to prison for violating the terms of their parole.
“A lot of the people in the community have come home from prison and they are getting a door slammed in their faces when they are looking for employment,” said Veronica Tucker-Scott, Jericho’s coordinator for public safety.
Statistics show that about two-thirds of incarcerated men go back to jail within three years of their release — a problem sometimes called the “revolving door” in the justice system.
In Maryland, a third of those admitted into prison in 2010 — about 3,690 people — were ex-prisoners who violated their parole, the Justice Department reported.
“Job and workforce development programs are very critical. That’s how people earn legitimate money,” said Faye Taxman, a criminology professor at George Mason University.
Taxman, who has been conducting research for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services for almost 20 years, said that reentry programs help ex-offenders become productive members of society and “prevent them from returning to old ways.”
In Maryland, where the state spends an annual average of $38,000 for each prisoner, keeping ex-offenders from returning to prison saves the state money and increases tax revenues, said Gregg Zaire, Jericho’s deputy director.
For Kevin T. Kent, 29, one of the program’s graduates, Jericho offered him an opportunity to turn his life around.
Kent went to prison for the first time when he was 18 years old for selling drugs, he said. He did not learn anything from the experience, he said, and quickly went back to his old lifestyle when he got out.
“My mentality was, they are not going to hire you. You have a felony, so you can’t make it past a McDonald’s job. So I started selling drugs again,” Kent said.
He went back to prison in 2004, 2008 and again in 2009—this time on an 8-year sentence.
“When I saw that the time was getting bigger and more of a burden to my family is when I realized that I had to change,” Kent said. He also said that he wanted to be somebody who his two daughters could look up to.
Kent entered Jericho’s training program soon after he was released on parole last year. Like all Jericho’s clients, he received a year of job training, a state ID, a bus pass, interview clothes and help applying for health insurance.
The program–which is part of the Episcopal Community Services of Maryland–also refers ex-prisoners to programs that help them find housing, get a high school diploma or get treatment for substance abuse and HIV.
“I don’t know if any other program would have given me a chance. I might have still be in prison today,” Kent said.
Kent started working as a cook for a catering company while he looked for a permanent job. He worked several part-time jobs to pay for his daughters’ child support, pay off debts and get his driver’s license. He said he applied to new jobs everyday until he found a job at Jet Transportation & Logistics, a delivery company. Kent worked his way up to supervisor at his company and has hired several Jericho clients.
He is not the only success story at Jericho. Zaire estimated that about 60 percent of participants who are able to work get a job–typically at supermarkets, hotels, restaurants or in construction.
Now Kent is looking to get a commercial driver’s license and get a better job as a truck driver. He knows that his criminal record could still be an issue at job interviews. But he is motivated to keep trying.
“Jericho gave me a chance to reenter into society, so everything (I do), I’d put my all into it,” Kent said. “I want to be successful.”