Ex-offenders need help finding way back to life

Dan Rodricks

Take a guy like Eric Brooks, for instance. He's 30 years old and he's been in trouble for - here's a shocker - dealing drugs in Baltimore. Last year, Brooks received a taxpayer-financed trip to a Maryland prison for seven months. He went to the Metropolitan Transition Center, which is the old Maryland Penitentiary, that Frankenstein castle commuters see from the Jones Falls Expressway. Based on what state officials have told me, it cost us about $14,000 to keep Eric Brooks there.

Was this a good thing? Was it money well spent?

Laws must be enforced. Cops have to do their job. Judges have to send criminals to prison.

But it's what the state of Maryland does with guys like Eric Brooks while they're inside that needs attention because whatever we're doing - at roughly $2,000 a month per resident - doesn't work.

Half of the guys who come out of Maryland prisons this year will be back within three.

A lot of them are young and stupid and just go back to their old ways.

But a lot just can't figure out what to do with themselves when they come out. They're not prepared to emerge into the sunlight.

They have no plan, no fresh ideas, no high school diploma. They have poor decision-making skills, limited work experience, tenuous arrangements for housing, and many have a drug addiction that went untreated during incarceration. ("Your addiction has been outside, parked under the viaduct and doing pushups, while you've been in here," I heard a drug-treatment counselor tell inmates the other day in the old penitentiary.)

Take a guy like Eric Brooks, for instance.

He called me for help in finding a job and a place to live. He didn't want to go back to the old neighborhood where he got arrested, and he wanted to stay away from the crowd he'd been running with. Doing so, he's smart enough to know, will only lead him back to B Block at MTC.

So he's staying with his grandmother in an apartment building near Towson.

But the management has told him he can't stay there without paying more rent.

But he doesn't have a job.

So he can't pay more rent.

So he's looking for some kind of transitional housing, hoping to get on a waiting list somewhere, counting on the kindness of a nonprofit to give him a roof for a few months. He is pounding the pavement and burning up telephone minutes to find a restaurant job.

It has taken Brooks more than a week to figure out how to get his Maryland identification card, and he still doesn't have one. (He needs to get a birth certificate first, he says.) He doesn't have transportation.

Brooks sounds earnest about changing his life and staying out of trouble, but it's easy to see a guy like this drifting back to his old habits if things don't fall into place for him.

Brooks needs an advocate or a mentor, someone to guide him to a better path.

Here's a resolution for 2006: We don't yap about a problem without presenting a solution.

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