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Inmates Making Furniture, Sewing Flags

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JESSUP, Md. (AP) — Sitting in her cubicle Monday in Jessup, Carolann Pollard flipped through papers on her desk and raved about her bosses.

Though she makes a few dollars a day, the former high school science teacher is able to use high-end graphic software to develop floor plans for state office buildings and render 3-D images of furniture. As she says, what else is she going to do while serving her 30-year prison sentence?

“This is challenging work,” said Pollard, 55, who was convicted in 1996 of second-degree murder. “It really keeps my mind from turning to oatmeal.”

Long gone are the days of inmates crushing larger rocks into smaller rocks – and relatively few inmates stamp license plates anymore. When it comes to modern prison work details, it’s about preparing inmates for life outside the concrete walls and razor wire, according to Joe Sommerville, chief operating officer of Maryland Correctional Enterprises, the prison industry arm of the state Division of Correction.

“We teach these men and women a very important thing called work ethic,” Sommerville said Monday as he led The Capital and a delegation of out-of-state prison industry officials around the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup. Many inmates enter the prison system with no work experience. They don’t understand how to talk to a boss or even how to show up on time.

“And if you don’t have good job skills, you end up back in here,” Pollard said.

According to state statistics, the recidivism rates for MCE inmates are more than 60 percent lower than the overall state prison rate. Sommerville said that while about 50 percent of the state’s general-population inmates are arrested again within three years of their release, fewer than 25 percent of the MCE workers end up back in jail.

More than 2,000 inmates of all security levels work for MCE. Among other things, they build office furniture, print signs, process meat and grow grasses to be planted in the Chesapeake Bay.

Inmates at the women’s prison in Jessup can work in one of four MCE offices. About 250 women design office floor plans, perform data entry, prepare bulk mail and work in the sewing shop making Maryland and American flags in a five-year-old building behind 16-foot-tall fences and razor wire. Work days usually begin around 6:45 a.m. and end around 1:30 p.m., inmates said.

There are limits on what the state’s prison industries can do. Under Maryland law, only nonprofit organizations and the state government may buy MCE goods or contract for MCE services.

“We can not compete with the commercial market,” Sommerville said, explaining that the inmate’s flags primarily fly outside state buildings and their furniture generally goes inside state offices.

Even with dealings with private industry off the table, MCE is self-sufficient and profitable. Erin Julius, a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections, said the program made a $400,000 profit last fiscal year.

While most of the profits are used to expand the program, MCE has given some of the money to the state. Over the past eight years, MCE has transferred $8.5 million to the state’s general fund and $1 million to the state Department of Education, according to Mark A. Vernarelli, another spokesman.

In addition to learning valuable job skills, the inmates who work for MCE earn money to spend at the prison commissary.

While the starting salary of an inmate working in the kitchen is $1 a day, MCE workers start at $1.25 a day, inmates said. On top of that, MCE workers also may receive productivity incentives worth up to an additional $5 a day.

“That’s pretty good money,” said Etta Meyers, a 58-year-old inmate serving a life sentence for her part in a 1977 murder in Baltimore. After 34 years in the sewing shop – first as a seamstress and now as an office clerk – she makes between $5 and $9 a day, Meyers said.

To become an MCE worker, an inmate must have a high school diploma or GED and be infraction-free for at least 90 days, officials said. Prospective workers also must have more than one year remaining on their sentence when they start.

Information from: The Capital of Annapolis, Md., http://www.hometownannapolis.com/
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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