My experience in a maximum-security facility and the importance of a second chance

Blog post by Whitney Harmel

Whitney Harmel is the Director of Strategic Partnerships at the Maryland Chamber of Commerce. Through her career history and past role as chair of the Emerging Leaders United Council, she has over a decade of sales, leadership, and relationship-building experience.

I wasn’t sure what to expect walking into the Jessup Correctional Facility. It’s a maximum-security prison with three levels of barb wire and fencing encompassing the grounds with several towers with guards. I arrived in the requested dress code with only my driver’s license and nothing else. Once a visitor badge was issued to me and everyone in our group, we were led through a series of hallways, doors and checkpoints through the main building, then outside through the yard and then back inside to another building where inmates eat, live and work.

We walked through a maze of stairs and hallways until we arrived at what I perceived as the main hallway. I was immediately struck by the floor; it was painted with lines, creating lanes like a road. I was also struck by the fact that some inmates were freely walking through the prison and that the lanes appeared to designate where they were permitted to walk. Our group stayed in the middle while the inmates traveled along the walls. It felt militaristic having an established system for walking, for movement, through the prison. I was never fearful and many of the inmates smiled and said hello.

Halfway down the main hallway we went through another locked door until we reached one of the Maryland Correctional Enterprises’ (MCE) two workshops at Jessup. Upon entering, I heard a familiar sound, what I refer to as an old-school framing machine. You see, I’m the daughter of entrepreneurs. My parents owned a professional framing business for 25 years and every morning before school in the ’80s and ’90s, my dad would use a similar joining machine to create picture frames in our basement. Since both of my parents have passed away and the business has since closed, I haven’t heard that sound in two decades. It was an immediate time warp and I felt very nostalgic in that moment. Here I was, in a maximum-security facility, being transported back to fond memories of my childhood.

I followed the sound and met a woman I will call Peggy, for the sake of her privacy. She runs the framing division and works at MCE 10 hours a day, four days a week. I explained to her about my parents and she showed me the frames she had been joining that morning. Talking to Peggy, I was struck with how personable she was. In fact, she looked like anyone I would meet walking down the street. Peggy was one of the first women to establish MCE’s women’s work program in Jessup and she was proud of her job and the skills she was gaining by working in the shop. I spoke with another woman, who I will call Megan. She has been in prison for nine years, since she was 22-years-old, and now works part-time at MCE – four-hour shifts, four days a week, mainly operating the engraving machine. Megan has a 10-year-old daughter and feels as though she’s better prepared to get a job when she goes home because she has the opportunity and to learn new skills in the shop. Another woman, Monica, was carving the design for a Maryland state park sign on the CNC machine while others were working on smaller engraving machines. All of these women spoke passionately and knowledgeably about the training they received and the pride they had carrying out their jobs. They told me about what they planned to do when they went home and how they planned to use this training.

We left the women’s shop and walked down the hall to where MCE operates the men’s facility. It’s larger in size with a graphics department, wide-format machines for printing, screen printing for Maryland road signs and an area for wrapping state vehicles. Several men were working on the “Rookie Driver” stickers that you can get at the MVA, while other were working to print and cut permits for state vehicles. One gentleman was intently and meticulously wrapping a public transportation vehicle in Maryland branding. I had the opportunity to speak with several of the men and all of them spoke of what they will do when they go home and how they can apply the skills and training they obtained from MCE.

They talked of their families, the desire for a good job, but, most of all, of going home. Home represented stability, housing, support, family, and employment opportunities – a second chance. It struck me how often the inmates spoke of going home – it was a phrase I heard over and over again. Every inmate talked about the value of their training and how it will be beneficial, “when I go home.” The Director of Marketing at MCE says, “Here at MCE, our mission is people. We are passionate about being part of the rehabilitation process for offenders within the prison system. My role is to promote our mission. We don’t just sell products and services, we are changing lives.”

MCE is a “[self-supporting] state agency whose mission is to provide structured employment and training activities for offenders in order to improve employability upon release, to enhance safety and security, to reduce prison idleness, and to produce quality, saleable goods and services.” MCE has employed 2,201 inmates and produced $52.5 million of revenue in fiscal year 2019 through the sale of products and services. Through their Continuing Allocation of Reentry Services (CARES) program, they have had 360+ graduates since 2009. In fiscal year 2019, they have had a $68.3 million impact on Maryland’s economy, including direct and secondary impacts. In 2009, 2012, 2015, and 2018, MCE achieved American Correctional Association (ACA) Accreditation, meeting 100% of standards. Workforce development programs for prisoners, like the one MCE provides here in Maryland, is creating a talent pipeline while providing opportunities for those who will one day return to the workforce.

On the other side, organizations like Vehicles for Change are actively working to provide the second chance people need when they leave prison.  Marty Schwartz, President of Vehicles for Change told the Maryland Chamber recently, “Vehicles for Change has been training and placing individuals recently released from incarceration, as auto technicians, for the past 5 years with amazing success, 100% placement and less than a 1% recidivism. VFC believes that talent is abundant it is opportunity that is so limited. An individual with talent but a criminal background has little to no opportunity. In the field of automotive where quality technicians are so hard to find VFC grads are filling that void. But this would not be possible without the willingness of our dealership and local garage partners who were willing to provide that opportunity to our graduates. What they have discovered is a new pool of talented individuals who are driven to be successful, who are loyal and trustworthy.” Marty and his team are running just one of the specialized workforce development training programs for previously incarcerated citizens in Maryland.

The Maryland Chamber Foundation has been actively engaged in seeking ways to address the challenges faced by the ex-offender community as these individuals prepare for and seek employment post-incarceration. Through our Second Chance Task Force, we are convening businesses, non-profits and government agencies to better understand the second chance landscape, challenges and roadblocks in Marylands. The Maryland Chamber Foundation believes that addressing the issues associated with second chance hiring and finding pathways for employment for the previously incarcerated is socially responsible and is a clear workforce development opportunity.

To learn more about how the Maryland Chamber Foundation is working on second chance legislation, click here.

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