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Color of Money Challenge: Soon-to-be-former inmates ready to rebuild their lives

By Michelle Singletary
Sunday, March 7, 2010; G01

Stephanie Harris's management and sales skills helped her earn $3,000 for just six or seven hours of work on a "good" day.

Over 10 years, Harris says, she earned about half a million dollars. But her job took away her freedom.

Harris was sentenced in 2007 to eight years in prison for selling heroin. Since she was a teen, Harris has been in and out of correctional institutions on various felony counts -- mostly for selling heroin and crack cocaine.

Christine Foote, with her long dusty-brown hair and black-rimmed glasses, looks as though she should be working in an office. And she had been working as an administrative assistant when she was sentenced to 10 years for stealing more than $68,000 from her employer, a Salisbury, Md., roofing company.

Foote and Harris are both about to be released on parole from the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women. The women have agreed to allow me to work with them to help manage their money. Over the next year, as part of my Color of Money Challenge, I'll be following the decisions these two need to make to strengthen their financial lives and keep them from going to prison again.

In past challenges, I've helped individuals and families get their money straight. Last year, I worked with unemployed individuals. The year before, I helped several military families save and get out of more than $50,000 in debt.

I met the two inmates through the Prosperity Partners Financial Freedom Program. It's a volunteer outreach effort of a financial mentoring program I direct at First Baptist Church of Glenarden.

In partnership with several other organizations -- the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Maryland and the District of Columbia, the IRS Taxpayer Advocate Service, the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service, and Maryland Correctional Enterprises (MCE) -- we visit inmates to review their credit reports and conduct workshops to teach them how to better manage their money or resolve any tax issues they may have.

I have no doubt this year's challenge will be tough. As a five-time convicted felon, Harris will have to trade her lucrative drug-hustling skills for a low-wage street-cleaning job.

Having worked her way up from a "hitter," or the person who hands the drugs to buyers, to an "overseer," Harris said, she managed four people making thousands of dollars a day. She says all the money was spent on clothes, household expenses and stuff she can't even remember.

"To a young person, it's a lifestyle that will intrigue you," she said, sitting in a classroom at the prison. "It was like a real company. I got management experience."

Now she intends to hustle, legally.

"The same drive I used to maintain my empire is the same drive I'm going to use to work productively," Harris said. "I know I can make it this time."

Foote, on the other hand, is moving back to a small community with limited employment opportunities. She'll live with her parents until she can afford to live on her own.

Finding a job is obviously one of the biggest struggles for people coming out of the criminal justice system. Under the best economic conditions, ex-offenders face substantial barriers to many types of legal employment. They, like many others, have credit histories riddled with problems, past-due debts and, in some cases, civil judgments just waiting for them to find work so their paychecks can be garnisheed.

And if ex-offenders cannot find work, the likelihood of their returning to a life of crime is high.

"It would be nice to get them into a job as opposed to releasing them into the same atmosphere, in the same unemployment situation as before," said J. Michael Stouffer, Maryland's commissioner of correction.

Foote, however, has a better chance than most ex-offenders of finding a job. She has been working with MCE, which provides pre-release training through a number of business units located in the state's major prisons. Last year, MCE employed 2,000 inmate workers. Those who work for MCE have lower recidivism rates in comparison with the general prison population, according to Stephen M. Shiloh, chief executive of MCE.

Foote has been doing data-entry work with statistical information from various state agencies.

"Our main focus is to give inmates work skills and a work ethic to help enhance their employability," Shiloh said.

Although she doesn't have a steady job lined up, Foote is hopeful she will find full-time employment.

"If someone gives me a shot, I'll do a good job," she said. "I'll show them I'm worth the risk."

People with a conviction in their past often turn out to be exemplary workers, says Rhonda Gaines, who is a workforce development specialist for MCE.

Gaines is working with Foote, trying to find her a job.

"While others may take having a job for granted, someone like Christine or Stephanie will have great appreciation for being a part of society, and being truly self-sufficient," Gaines said. "Especially if they learn from you what to do with the money once they have earned it."

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

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