Ex-Cons Help To Rehab Baltimore Blight
07/24/2010
National Public Radio (NPR) - Online

Abandoned rowhouses are a common sight in downtown Baltimore, a city that also has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country. A pilot project that brings former offenders together to save these buildings aims to change all that.

The program is called the Safe and Sound Campaign. It's a nonprofit organization working with the mayor's office which hires ex-cons to deconstruct buildings, taking them apart piece by piece. All the men served time for drug offenses.

On a recent steamy afternoon, Neil Joseph, 45, and eight other men clear a three-story rowhouse on North Calvert Street in downtown Baltimore. 'To make it short, I was an over-the-road truck driver. I was pretty much transporting some marijuana from Arizona back to New York. It was very lucrative, but I got caught and I ended up doing a five-year prison sentence for that,' Joseph, a former drug addict, says.

Joseph says he's been clean for 14 years. Standing in the midst of an abandoned crack den, with smelly mattresses, empty liquor bottles and spent crack vials, he only sees a room that needs cleaning. 'If you look out the window, you can see all the stuff we threw out a lot of clothes and old furniture,' Joseph says. Some, like Donny Wilson, are repeat offenders. He's spent 35 of his 55 years in prison for drug and nonviolent crimes. The program teaches the men occupational health and safety. They get certified to work with hazardous material. Wilson says that gives them skills for the future. 'It's a good-paying job. I work with good guys, a good crew, a good boss,' Wilson says. John Friedel from the Safe and Sound Campaign says these guys know that dealing drugs makes a quicker buck, but they've been-there-and-done-that and now just want to work. 'If there were any of that subtext thinking going on with the guys of 'Oh, it's hot, it's horrible, it's grunt work, it's not good,' I think they would have broken by now or not showed up. We've had perfect attendance every day,' he says. The men are visibly proud as they talk about their work in deconstruction. But they all stress that it needs to continue. As part of a redevelopment bid, 600 abandoned houses in this area are coming down, and Friedel hopes his program gets some of that work. Friedel says demolition might be cheaper, but in the long run, deconstruction provides more jobs and is better for the environment. For example, bricks and beams can be saved and used for other purposes, Friedel says. 'It really becomes cost neutral,' he says. It gives these men the chance to work in a job market that is lean and not looking to hire ex-cons and in their own neighborhoods. Gary Maynard, the state secretary for correctional services, says the people who live here were willing to give the program a chance. 'This is the first community that was really wanting to reach out to members of their own community who were being released from prison, so we found that part very attractive,' Maynard says. Troy Pratt, 23, says he remembers when this neighborhood was filled with families having cookouts. 'I just want to see it like it used to be, four, five years ago, [when] everybody lived in their houses,' Pratt says. Today, those houses are vacant.

He spent nine months in jail for selling drugs in this very same area. It was the only work he knew. Now, he says, that's changed.