By Justin Fenton
April 4, 2015
Two dozen inmates sat in a makeshift classroom on a recent afternoon at the Baltimore City Detention Center getting a crash course in civics. Instructor Meg Ward had written Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's name on a whiteboard, explaining the structure of city government and her rise to power.
There was a small commotion in the hallway outside, and a surprise guest entered: Rawlings-Blake.
For the next 40 minutes, the mayor, perched on the edge of the teacher's desk, discussed how she approaches the city's challenges and works to build consensus. The inmates were prepared with plenty of questions: What are you doing about vacant homes? Are there plans for new recreation centers? What will happen to schools that are closed down?
The inmates are part of a 12-week program called Elevation, which covers a wide range of topics including drug education, parenting, communication skills, entrepreneurship, current events and Spanish. Participants, who range in age from 18 to 58, live and eat together in their own area of the jail.
Such programs have not previously been offered to inmates in the pretrial facility, where stays can last a few months or years. As they await trial, they are alternatively on the cusp of release or a potentially lengthy commitment to a state prison.
Elevation seeks to put that idle time to use, regardless of its length, said Kate E. Wolfson of the Safe & Sound Campaign, a nonprofit group that helps run the program.
In the short term, it has helped curb violence within the facility, she said.
"The majority of them have made a decision that they want to do something different when they get home, and want to change their lives," Wolfson said.
Aides say Rawlings-Blake's visit was part of a broader commitment to improving re-entry services for Baltimore's ex-offender population. Though arrests have declined significantly over the past decade, tens of thousands of city residents are still locked up each year.
Angela Johnese, director of the Mayor's Office on Criminal Justice, said the city coordinates a monthly meeting of nonprofits and other organizations to discuss re-entry services, and is competing for state and federal grants to help their efforts. And the city runs a "re-entry center" at Mondawmin Mall.
Rawlings-Blake also has been on a recent push to encourage mentoring to keep young black men out of trouble.
"The mayor believes we can't just be all about law enforcement and locking criminals up," said spokesman Kevin Harris. "There has to be an equally aggressive component of making sure services are in place to help offenders be productive members of society."
Renard Brooks, the mayor's re-entry program coordinator, was part of a group that traveled with Wolfson and prison officials to California to learn about the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office's "Merit" program, which inspired Elevation. Thousands of inmates have successfully completed the Merit program.
The cinder-block classroom at the jail features the same white-gray color scheme as the rest of the facility, but the walls are covered in motivational posters and collages made by program participants. When Rawlings-Blake entered, the men stood at attention and clapped; showing respect is one of the program rules.
Ward said the inmates were "blown away at the idea that the mayor would come into the jail to talk to them."
Rawlings-Blake spoke of building consensus to reach goals, joking that she learned that early as a middle child. "If you have a vision and you can't convince everyone else to support it, that vision is worthless," she said. "You're not going to make everybody happy, but you can look for consensus."
Some questions from the inmates revolved around opportunities for youth. That led to debate after the mayor left about whether success was more dependent on resources and opportunities, or the choices people make, Ward said.
Olisaemeka Okoye, a corrections officer who works with Elevation, said while there are frequent fights in the jail, there are no such problems on the Elevation group tier. Instead of cells, those inmates live in a dorm setting and have more access to a phone, television and a microwave.
"They really want to stay there," Okoye said. "Whenever I make my rounds, I see they're doing homework or reading books."
Ward, who runs the Patrick Allison House, a transitional house for men released from prison, said she has enjoyed watching the group bond.
"They come into the program as individual people who, for obvious reasons, are very concerned about their own problem," she said. "As the weeks go on, you watch this dynamic form between this group, where it becomes a community. The older guys kind of start taking care of the younger guys. They begin to work together as a team."
Rawlings-Blake had ready answers for the questions posed by the inmates, but one stumped her. An older inmate asked why younger people don't vote. Rawlings-Blake said she couldn't understand it either, and that by not voting, "You allow yourself to be ignored."
"I don't think any of you are invisible, and I want your voices heard," she told them.