Correctional Facility Helps Inmates Prepare for Life on Outside
Carroll County Times

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SYKESVILLE - Ronald Smith is counting down the days until he gets to go home.

Smith, 44, of Baltimore, is an inmate at the Central Maryland Correctional Facility in Sykesville. He's scheduled to be released Nov. 4 after serving a five-year sentence for distribution of heroin.

For now, he spends his days working in the prison's laundry facility, handling sheets, clothing and other items from a number of state agencies.

He starts work at 6:30 a.m. each day, overseeing 14 men who make sure each item is clean, counted, folded and prepared for shipping.

Smith said the year he's spent at the Sykesville facility has helped him learn active listening and responsibility, and he plans to put the skills he's acquired to use once he's released at a Baltimore company handling laundry and linens.

The facility on Buttercup Road, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, is a minimum security prison for men and offers job training, drug treatment and education opportunities for up to 516 inmates as they prepare to finish their sentences.

It's unique among state facilities in that almost every inmate has a job, an important part of preparing to re-enter society, said Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

Along with the laundry operation, the facility includes Second Chances Farm, where inmates care for retired racehorses.

Thoroughbreds are often sold to slaughterhouses after they can't race any more, said program coordinator Conni Swenson.

Inmates who work at the farm undergo a six-month program in which they learn every aspect of caring for and handling horses, she said. Once it's completed, they receive a certification that will allow them to get a job at a breeding farm, therapeutic riding center or other equine-related business once they're released, Swenson said.

The farm opened in May 2009 and currently houses four horses, but Swenson said the plan calls for them to eventually house as many as 30.

Jamel Johnson, 41, of Baltimore, grooms horses, cleans and does maintenance work at the farm.

Incarcerated since 2005 for drug possession with intent to distribute, Johnson said he asked to be assigned to the farm. The job provides a sense of responsibility, as well as a chance to build trust, he said.

Working with horses, they need to trust you, and you need to be able to trust them, Johnson said.

After his release, scheduled for December 2011, Johnson said he hopes to work with at-risk youths.

For now, he helps care for the four horses.

"It's wild, because they're just like humans," he said.

In order to be considered for a position at the farm, inmates cannot be violent offenders, have any past animal cruelty charges and must have gone at least 12 months at the prison without committing any infractions, Swenson said.

Back in the laundry facility, Russell Marshall monitors four large washing machines as they spin and vibrate.

Marshall, 39, is approaching the end of his fourth year of a robbery sentence, and said he's scheduled to be released in March 2011.

His unit handles a variety of products, from state agency uniforms to mop heads, buffer pads, sheets, towels, washcloths and blankets.

Marshall said he'd been through the prison's drug counseling program, and believes the facility can offer a lot of benefits to people who are open to taking them.

"If you want to be helped, then they've got a lot of programs here that can help you," he said.