Rattling the Bars: Living Classrooms
Executive Producer Eddie Conway reports from East Baltimore focusing on a job placement program for people returning home from prison.
EDDIE CONWAY: I’m Eddie Conway. I’m here in East Baltimore, at a program called Living Classrooms, and I’m here with the Director of that program, John Huffington. And we’re going to look at this program and see what it does for adults returning from incarceration, and other people in the community.
JOHN HUFFINGTON: …and this houses our primary re-entry component, which is Project SERVE. SERVE stands for Service, Empowerment, Revitalization, Volunteerism and Employment. So, we do work with re-entry. We go behind the fence, usually three to four months before release and start working on transitions plans. I have case managers that operate various cognitive programming behind the fence with the guys.
EDDIE CONWAY: In other words, you have programs inside the prison system itself, a pre-release for people that’s getting ready to come out. And what do you do with them before they get here?
JOHN HUFFINGTON: Well, we try to work – it’s cognitive – so we try to work with behavioral changes as far as… part of it’s cognitive, the other part is working with, you know, developing transition plan. Do they have a housing situation? IDs are a big, big thing, you know, making sure they have the birth certificate, social security, so you can go get a Maryland regular ID, and then obviously, transition to a driver’s license. We also have, what we call walk-ins. Folk that just show up, that have heard about us, word of mouth, prison grapevine…
EDDIE CONWAY: Well, I know that’s a fact, because I called ahead, somebody come to my office that was looking to get employed, to get the skillset and so on, and I called over here, and they said, “Send him down.” Right?
JOHN HUFFINGTON: Absolutely. You know, we have what’s called a rapid attachment to work. The way it’s designed is, within one week of them coming home, they will be earning a minimum wage and/or better and working a 40-hour workweek.
EDDIE CONWAY: Okay.
JOHN HUFFINGTON: We put ’em right to work. We want to keep them from making them even having to go to the street corner, or having to look at anything. So, we do all the other things that most of the workforce development organizations do, the soft skills, the workshops, all the surround systems there, but the difference is, we have the rapid attachment to work.
JOHNNY JONES: You know, they is some hard workers. And like I said, they worked for minimum wage, $8.75 an hour. It’s not a lot, but it’s something, you know, to help out while we all search for them… this permanent job that they can… really use. These men and women… they come through the program, some just want to work, but they know they get a lot of other skills, as they are seen through the program. Soft skills. They learn a lot of the equipment, and sometimes this is the first job that a lot of these guys – and women – actually had.
So, it’s gratifying to them. They’re appreciative for all that we do for them. And as days go on, they forget all about that they’re only making $8.75 an hour, because you know in the long run, it’s going to basically land them a sustainable income job. Because of the skills and the work ethics that they have.
JOHN HUFFINGTON: This is our case management area…
EDDIE CONWAY: Okay.
JOHN HUFFINGTON: This is our main meeting area. You see, it’s in a circle; it’s designed as a circle to – as you might remember, from the AVP concept.
EDDIE CONWAY: Yeah.
JOHN HUFFINGTON: So, every morning, before they go out to work, they’ll come here at eight o’clock. They report at eight o’clock. And we try to have them out on the job sites by 8:30.
SALIM AL AMEEN(?): Once again, good morning. And team, you know what we usually do. We start it off, and we share a Lord… a timely topic here, Project SERVE, to get us started before we start off on our daily work. So, the topic for today, is voting. What it means to me, what it don’t mean to others.
Voting for me is an opportunity to express myself as an individual. And as I said earlier, I don’t know how many people in America, maybe 390 million or more, but at least I’ve done what I could, and it’s part of my legacy.
MAN: Cast your vote, man. If you don’t, in four years, we may be looking at the same thing again. Donald Trump.
WOMAN: Well, I was just telling Sierra recently, about a book I read, and it was about voice, it was about standing up for yourself regardless of what the circumstance might be, or what the potential negative impact could be, but standing up for yourself. So, voting is just one of many opportunities to activate your voice.
MAN: All the people here who
MAN: And they really opened my eyes, like, wow, they just put a guy in there who doesn’t care about most of the world. But then I didn’t vote, so… really, I can’t really say anything, but deal with it. But now that I know I can vote as an ex-offender, I will cast my ballot next time, to make sure that this won’t repeat itself as history has done before.
MAN: I see a dare…
JOHN HUFFINGTON: This particular project was interesting. This was something we were doing as I came on board as the director. So, one of the things Living Classrooms is responsible for, we have a division called Historic Ships, and we are entrusted with the guardianship and maintenance and safeguard, you know, safe care, of the USS Constellation. The Coast Guard Taney, the lighthouse. So, the men that you see in the picture, you see a uniformed officer who actually worked in the pen with us at the time, but, um–
EDDIE CONWAY: I remember her.
JOHN HUFFINGTON: Yeah. Yeah. She’s a CO-1, starting out. And she’s a captain.
EDDIE CONWAY: Okay.
JOHN HUFFINGTON: This was, um… these guys were on work release.
EDDIE CONWAY: Okay.
JOHN HUFFINGTON: So, now imagine this is after 9/11 and it is a military base. These guys were coming from VPRU every day in a prison van, to work on the nation’s treasure, which is the USS Constellation. Half of them went home during the process of that, so we… when they came home, I had them come up here and become part of the Project SERVE program. We just put another van into place. We actually had the prison van going down with maybe six or eight guys, and then my van was going down with the other six or eight, so they all got to finish that project. And then they all got to sail the Constellation back to the Inner Harbor, which was really… I mean, I got to ride that, so…
EDDIE CONWAY: Okay. What do you here? Give me your name, first.
SALIM AL AMEEN: As you know, my name is Salim Al Ameen, and I serve as a Case Manager here, Project SERVE. I deal with intake and enrolment, and the whole process, the new members coming into the program, applications and design and give information we might need, processing their field of work, or Korea, or just to see what the barriers are that we’ll be dealing with this individual, who’s looking for some work.
EDDIE CONWAY: So, do you know most of these guys? I mean, you know, I spent 40-some years in prison, I know you spent 40, do you know most of the guys that come in here, or is this new people now?
MAN: I would say a small handful, I actually really know. But in spite of that, I mean, the other ones who come through, who might have had that background, as well, I’m already familiar with their experiences. So, we kind of automatic have something in common, to kind of like, help process them through, so they feel a little more comfortable.
This is the Dell Resource Center, which I give some referrals, as well. So, if you might not be any sense of working, might want to go to school, you might do some kind of training, and we can refer him to the benefit, and that’s what we do.
EDDIE CONWAY: How successful – and I know this is a question that I should ask the Director, but how successful is it in terms of people come in, you doing case work on them, you getting them involved in the training, you processing them into a job, as John was saying, within a week? How successful is it in terms of people staying and not going back into the system?
JOHN HUFFINGTON: While they’re working in the fields, giving them expertise, knocking off the dust, so to speak. We’re in the process of looking for a permanent job for people engaged, but at the same time, when their four months come up, it’s kind of like the attachment has been built, they don’t even want to leave. But it just was a process to get them ready for workforce, and when they’re ready to advance more to the bigger things, you know, a permanent job or whatnot.
But I would say at least 70%.
EDDIE CONWAY: So, you just came right out and jumped right in this.
MAN: Well no, I start out in this program. I came to this program first as a member of Project SERVE.
EDDIE CONWAY: Oh, John brought you here?
MAN: No, John… actually was still…
JOHN HUFFINGTON: I came behind him.
EDDIE CONWAY: Oh, you came be him…
JOHN HUFFINGTON: He came four months before me…
EDDIE CONWAY: Oh, okay. Okay. All right. Because I know you all worked together in the system to help prisoners and create cognitive(?) programs and whatnot, right? But, okay, so you came here as part of the program.
MAN: Yes. I came as a member of the program, Project SERVE, and worked my way through the program, actually got hired by Living Classrooms, and then left there and went somewhere else, came back as a case manager
JOHN HUFFINGTON: Yeah, we came for a board meeting while I was reporting out on the statistics, you know, we had a 10% recidivism rate. Now, citywide is 52%.
EDDIE CONWAY: Okay.
JOHN HUFFINGTON: So, I don’t like statistics, but that one, okay. I can live with that, but it still means we gotta do better. You know, and we’re working–
EDDIE CONWAY: Think about it, if you’re, but I mean, if your 90% success rate is, like, really… it’s got to be good.
JOHN HUFFINGTON: Our employment retention, our employment placement retention rate is 79%. So, that one I’m really proud of. You know… all the time…
EDDIE CONWAY: It’s kind of like wrap-around support in terms… yeah, in terms of that person really adjusting, because it might be other kind of things happening besides his skill set, he just might have issues with his family, now he’s been returned.
JOHN HUFFINGTON: I think it’s an encouraging time. Even under other politics of the day, but either for the state, I think we can make some things… we can move the needle right now.
EDDIE CONWAY: What’s your numbers when you say the job retention is 79%…?
JOHN HUFFINGTON: Well, those numbers come from–
EDDIE CONWAY: …recidivism rate is 90%? Butt I’m saying, what’s your intake numbers in terms of, like, say, in a period of six months, how many people do you actually see and help?
JOHN HUFFINGTON: We were required to serve 175. We served 190.
EDDIE CONWAY: Okay.
JOHN HUFFINGTON: So, we brought in more than we needed to, and those numbers directly derive from that. Out of that 190, we had 79% employment rate. We only had 10% recidivism rate. So, that’s where those numbers come from and in addition to that, OSI, independently did a three… you know, they go back three years in our records and they came up… we were at a 9% recidivism rate under that system.
So, we do direct service of probably 150 to 200 of the year, through Project SERVE placement, in direct service, meaning somebody might come through our door, and for whatever reason they’re not quite a fit for Project SERVE, sometimes because they’re not ready. But we don’t just let them walk out the door. We still provide the case management. We still use our computer lab. They can come up there, they can job search, they get referrals, so through indirect service, we’re probably dealing with between here and the target investment zone, which is over at the UA house over at Fayette Street(?), we’re probably touching another 700 to 800 per year right now.
MAN: Not a glamorous job, but it’s a job. It’s a job. It’s the program.
MAN: The thing is, they get out of the program, it’s going to help them land that job, and we had a lot of people that went off on this program and done good things. Some work for the city, some work for construction odd companies. They work all over. We’re just here just to help them and make sure that we do whatever we can, to make their life… and make their life, and then them job search a success one… a successful one. So… hopefully many of these people want to, this van right here, in the next few months, of being those people that I’m talking about. They’ll be out there. They’ll come back here, three or four months later, and just be thanking us for helping them be successful – such as myself, because this is where I started. Started right on back in this van, just like these guys. Then I worked for the Living Classroom.
Paying back some of the things that was given to me. It’s a good feeling, man. It’s a real good feeling. And you ask any of these guys; they’ll tell you the same thing.
MAN: Instead of being out here on the streets, or in some, or in some jail in the grave, man, so Living Classroom the place to be, man. You try and do something positive, which is something for your time, man. Keep the city clean, fend for the neighborhood and kids, man. Baltimore, stand up, ya’ll.
MAN: As always, I want to thank you for your time, and I want to share with, I guess, in summation of what we just did, comments, perspectives on what voting is all about, but for those who might not have had a comment, or might not even… or just pass the mic, I learned that just because a person doesn’t say a thing, or doesn’t do a thing, doesn’t mean that he hasn’t taken in some information to benefit from, bein’ exposed in the circle. That’s how we had these… that’s why we have these talks, because sometimes some people are used to laying back, and they’d been given time, they might burst forth with a new idea that the ones who’ve been talking all the time never came up with.
So, a friend of mine told me the man who is quiet, is most definitely listening. And I don’t mean man to exclude the women, women, as well. So, take that in mind when you step off the day. You know it’s cold out there. You know what I mean? Everybody might not know how to adjust to that cold. But evidently you do. So suit up, prepare for another day of work, cold temperature, saying got nothing to do with voting, sir, but I gotta get cold. You might not all not have the vote, but you all gotta get cold. You gotta get it out. So bear in mind, just be mindful of where you’re at, and take advantage of this day, even though it’s cold. Thank you for your time and participation.