A jobs fair was held inside the D.C. jail yesterday. It was a first. Eleven inmates due to be released early next year showed up for job interviews dressed in freshly pressed orange jumpsuits. Some even brought resumes.
Charles D. Harris's curriculum vitae was especially well crafted. It noted his many years of legitimate work experience, including a custodial job in Lewisburg, Pa., from 1987 to 1999. He had "cleaned and disinfected restroom facilities including fixtures, sinks, urinals and toilets." The resume did not note, however, that he was an inmate at the federal prison in Lewisburg at the time or that he was doing 19 years for manslaughter. But that was all right. The focus of the jobs fair was on the future, not the past.
Harris and the other 10 inmates recently completed a six-week employment skills program sponsored by Jobs Partnership Greater Washington. They will soon be among the 2,000 or so District residents who are released from correctional facilities each year -- many of whom are woefully unprepared to lead productive lives upon their return to the city.
"During a visit to the Rivers Correctional Institution in North Carolina, where about two-thirds of the inmates are from D.C., I asked how many were in for parole violations, and about two-thirds of the hands went up," recalled the Rev. Stephen Tucker, president and chief executive of the Jobs Partnership, a faith-based program developed by a coalition of 156 Washington area churches. "There is a great danger of them going back once they get out -- for not reporting to their parole officers, not finding a job and not passing the drug tests. We're trying to break that cycle, and the best way is to get inside the jail and get to them before they are released."
Myles Gladstone, a vice president at Miller & Long Concrete Construction Co., brought good news for the job seekers. The D.C.-based company is the largest concrete subcontractor in the United States, with more than 3,000 employees and about $400 million in construction work expected to begin soon.
"Our minimum wage is $10.50 an hour; none of our employees makes less than that," he told them. "We also have a great benefits package, plus a profit-sharing plan that has allowed some of our employees to retire with close to a million bucks."
But there was a catch.
"We start our day at 7 a.m. If you come at 7:01, you're late," Gladstone said. "We've had people living within eyesight of the job who couldn't get there on time. We even bought some of them alarm clocks, and then they'd say the battery ran out or the electricity was turned off. In the last two years, we have offered employment to or actually hired about 200 people. Of that number, only two are still working for us today."
The inmates nodded. They understood the challenge. Most of them had job experience -- including construction work. But bad attitudes and poor work habits had caused them to lose the jobs.
Their job training had stressed spiritual development, the importance of integrity, taking responsibility, dealing with authority figures and controlling emotions. If the inmates got the jobs they were seeking from Miller & Long, they would most assuredly need those skills to get them through the day.
"You may be assigned to work for a Hispanic foreman who speaks no English, but it can be done," Gladstone told them. "We try to treat everybody with respect, but you may get treated a little rough at times. When we've got 15 concrete trucks backed up and the concrete inside is starting to harden, it can get rough and you can't be thin-skinned or take things personally."
And that wasn't all of it. "Just about everything we're building now are condominiums," Gladstone said. "People are putting out about $800,000 for each unit. I don't know where they're getting all of that money from."
None of the inmates was nodding in approval now. But Harris remained undaunted. "I believe that if I put God first, everything else is going to work out," he said.
The jobs program had certainly taught him how to talk the talk. Come his release Jan. 23, he'll find out if he can walk the walk.