On most mornings, the inmates at the Montgomery County Detention Center are up at 4, and by midday, already flipping through the pages of high school and college textbooks. By the afternoon, many of them are on the job.

For more than a year now, the detention center, like others across the country, has organized community service work crews to sweep the county's highways of trash, cut grass and plant shrubbery along many roads. The crews also have removed graffiti and unwanted advertisements that were sprayed or plastered onto buildings.

About two months ago, however, inmates began more structured jobs and are sorting thousands of pieces of mail for nonprofit and county government agencies. The so-called Workforce Project is modeled largely after the "job shop" program in Minnesota, which aims to reduce inmates' idleness while boosting their productivity.

The project is "what keeps me busy," said Samuel Barnwell, 18, an inmate from the Bronx, N.Y. "It gets me in a mentality that when I get out on the street, I'll want to work."

The Workforce Project will sharply increase the number of inmates involved in daily work and is expected to generate more than 300,000 hours of inmate labor over the next two years, said Eric Seleznow, the county corrections department spokesman.

Already, participants in the project--most of whom are youthful offenders--have sorted through a 60,000-piece mailing for Community Ministries of Montgomery County, a faith-based social services provider, in addition to a 25,000-piece mailing for the county's division of solid waste. Any day now, the department of corrections will finalize negotiations on a deal that would bring 160,000 pieces of mail for inmates to organize.

For now, the program will stick to working on the community service projects of public and nonprofit organizations. Eventually, after the detention center moves to its new home in Clarksburg, Seleznow said, the program will attempt to carve out partnerships with private companies. What relatively small earnings the detention center makes from the labor go into the county's general fund, which pays for supervision and security, Seleznow said.

Inmates earn no money, but officials hope that a small salary eventually can be paid. Inmates then would have to pay child support, if they have children, and contribute to a fund for crime victims.

In several states, private companies that have established work partnerships with county jails have hired offenders after they've left the corrections system, said Rod Miller, project director for the U.S. Justice Department's bureau of justice assistance.

The Justice Department has reported that jail work programs, while reducing idleness, also help lower jail operating costs and recidivism and instill a work ethic in many inmates.

"We make no vast claims for the program," said Arthur M. Wallenstein, the detention center's new chief, who worked with a similar program as head of the King County, Wash., corrections system.

"It will not end criminal behavior, but it will create a potential for growth within the individual when they see they can hold a job on a daily basis and make a contribution to some other organization," he said.

About 15 percent, or 90, of the detention center's inmates participate in some type of work program--mostly in food preparation or maintenance services. In total, the center's inmates provide about 180,000 hours of labor each year.

To survive here, even if it's for a few months, you either do the time or let it do you, the inmates say. "Laying down all day lets you get depressed," Barnwell said as he flipped through a set of packages bound for one of Montgomery County's 300 public schools.

The process of sorting each package goes something like this:

Take each package, wrapped in a brown envelope, and line it up in alphanumeric order.

Sometimes, there's a folder marked with the school's name but no matching card.

Or a card and no folder.

Toss incomplete folders to the side; deal with them later.

"If you slip, or get off [track] a little bit, it can be confusing," Barnwell said. "If I didn't do it right, we'd have to take it apart, do it again. If I don't take my time, I'll get it [messed] up."