By Michelle Singletary
Sunday, May 23, 2010; G01
Picking up trash is a career step up for Stephanie Harris.
She's got a new hairdo -- slicked down -- to go with her new job and work outfit. On a rainy day in downtown Baltimore, she's wearing a red shirt and yellow rain pants and jacket to keep from getting soaked. It's a good look for her. The colors suit her better than her former prison grays.
"I don't mind cleaning the streets," Harris said when I visited her. "To me, when you go from working seven days a week earning 95 cents to a dollar a day, to making $7.25 an hour, it's an upgrade."
Let me put that in perspective for you.
Compare her hourly pay of $7.25 with the $3,000 a day she routinely earned selling drugs. But that job landed her in prison in 2007. It was the fifth time for Harris, who was sentenced to eight years for her last offense. On a cold and windy April 9, after anxiously going through a tedious release process, Harris walked out of the Maryland Correctional Institute for Women.
When Harris was paroled, she vowed she wouldn't go back to prison, even if an honest living included removing cigarette butts from cracks in the sidewalk, weeding tree pits, emptying pole-mounted trash cans and scraping stickers off light poles and street signs.
Christine Foote, who also was recently paroled from MCIW, would welcome any job.
For now, she's taking care of her nieces and nephews to earn some money. She had hoped to land a job doing data-entry work as she did with Maryland Correctional Enterprises, which provides pre-release training through a number of business units located in the state's major prisons.
Harris and Foote, as part of my annual Color of Money Challenge, have agreed to allow me to follow them through this year as they try to turn their lives around. I met them while volunteering to teach personal finance classes to soon-to-be released inmates, and they were among my best students.
We talk about budgeting, saving and making better financial decisions. But mostly I try to give them encouragement.
Foote has moved back to a small community. It's been a harder transition for her because there are fewer employment opportunities. Every day she applies for several jobs.
"Most people don't even get back to me," Foote said when I visited her in Salisbury, Md. "I hear more nos than yeses, but I have to keep pushing."
Two companies did get back with her and scheduled interviews. One is for an information technology position, the other as a business office manager at a nursing home.
"Even with this job market, at some point I'll get a break," Foote said. "I'll get something."
Harris can't stop smiling, even while talking about a job that many people would abhor. She works as a "clean sweep ambassador" for the nonprofit Downtown Partnership of Baltimore.
She's already made a good impression on her supervisor, who has also served time.
"I would tell anyone she works under me," said Thomas Clements, a supervisor for the clean team. "I feel she's really striving to get herself together. She has a good work ethic and attitude. Some people get here right on time. She gets here before her time."
Everyone on the street-cleaning squad has had to overcome major challenges, said Michael Evitts, communications director for the partnership.
"More than half of the squad was homeless at some point, and many have struggled with substance addiction," he said. "Others, like Stephanie, have served time. Whether they know it or not when they start, working at Downtown Partnership is an important step to creating a new life. Some people aren't ready to give up their old ways, and those people don't last very long, but we're always willing to give them a second or third chance when they're ready."
Not everyone thinks ex-offenders should be given chances. After I wrote about Harris and Foote in an earlier column, some online comments were vicious in condemning their past.
But Harris and Foote deserve another chance.
What's the alternative?
You can't warehouse forever everyone who breaks the law.
The alternative is to provide services for released inmates and help them find decent employment. Not everyone can be turned around. But we have to try.
"This is the end and the beginning," Harris said the day she walked out of MCIW. "All I need is for someone to give me a chance. There isn't anything I'm too prideful to do."
Readers can write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.
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