Ex-Cons Help To Rehab Baltimore Blight

Neil Joseph outside a row house in Baltimore that he's rehabbing.

Neil Joseph takes a break from rehabbing a row house on North Calvert Street in Baltimore. Jamie Tarabay/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jamie Tarabay/NPR

Abandoned row houses are a common sight in downtown Baltimore, a city that also has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country. A pilot project employs former offenders to help save these buildings.

A nonprofit organization working with the mayor's office created the program, the Safe and Sound Campaign. Through it, ex-cons take buildings apart piece by piece.

On a recent steamy afternoon, Neil Joseph, 45, and eight other men who have served time for drug offenses clear a three-story row house on North Calvert Street.

"To make it short, I was an over-the-road truck driver," says Joseph, a former drug addict. "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 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 sees a room that only 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.

Donny Wilson, a repeat offender, has spent 35 of his 55 years in prison for drug and nonviolent crimes. Safe and Sound teaches the men occupational health and safety. They get certified to work with hazardous material, which Wilson says gives them skills for the future.

"It's a good-paying job. I work with good guys, a good crew, a good boss," he says.

John Friedel from the Safe and Sound Campaign says the men 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 deconstruction work. 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. He 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."

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.

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

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