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Jobs for Ex-Offenders in the Green Economy

Donnie Wilson and Neil Joseph
Donnie Wilson and Neil Joseph

Baltimore puts a higher percentage of its population behind bars — 0.6 percent, or more than 4,000 people on any given day in 2009 — than any other city in America, according to the Justice Policy Institute report Baltimore Behind Bars, released in June. (Cook County in Illinois and New York City both incarcerate less than 0.2 percent of their denizens.) Part of this is expected, since Baltimore has the country's second-highest homicide rate. More than half of those in its jails, however, are behind bars for minor or drug-related offenses. In a city that is 64 percent African American, about 89 percent of the jail population is black, and more than 86 percent is male. Most of those jailed are also under age 35.


As Baltimore residents and viewers of HBO's The Wire know well, the city is also home to nearly 30,000 abandoned, boarded-up buildings, nearly all of them safety and fire hazards. The city owns most of these structures, eyesores at best. At worst they become rat-infested sites of criminal activity. Baltimore spends nearly $12 million annually on demolition projects, ripping down and dumping toxic materials into landfills.

In 2009 a group of innovative thinkers, community activists and lawmakers decided to tackle both problems at once by creating a program that would train those leaving the city's correctional system in deconstruction: the systematic disassembly of a building to maximize recycling and reuse (or reclamation). Why not train ex-offenders to dismantle buildings — using green processes — rather than simply demolish? The city's infrastructure would benefit, and these men would be trained for their future. (Nearly two-thirds of those released from incarceration will return to jail or prison, but that percentage drops to a third for those who get help from programs designed to help ex-offenders return to their communities.) Thus the Barclay Deconstruction and Reclamation pilot project was born.


Hathaway Ferebee and John Friedel of the Safe & Sound Campaign, an organization dedicated to improving conditions for Baltimore families, negotiated partnerships with the mayor's office and the Maryland-based Jericho Reentry Program, which helps men who are being released from jail or prison move back into the work force. The collaboration also included a local minority-owned firm, L&J Construction, and the Seattle-based expert deconstruction team Reuse Consultants, which has worked on similar green projects in Chicago, Cincinnati and Buffalo, N.Y. With funding from a Community Service Block Grant and the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Barclay Deconstruction project trained and hired nine former offenders to form a crew to dismantle five abandoned buildings in Baltimore.

The men, who range in age from 23 to 55, were chosen from among about two dozen men Jericho had put forward because of their enthusiasm for the project and their related skills. All nine have spent time behind bars for drug-related crimes. Having passed safety-training programs from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, they are now working to dispose of thousands of tons of waste, including lead paint and asbestos insulation, that would otherwise have remained in the buildings or found its way into city landfills. The men have been working since June 10 in the pilot program, which has funding only through July. Several of the men, however, already have competing offers from landscapers and construction firms.

Dave Bennink of Reuse Consultants makes the case that training former offenders in deconstruction is good economic policy: "These are all local jobs that cannot be shipped overseas, and we are working to make them living-wage jobs requiring different levels of experience, and potentially launching workers into other related careers." The construction industry, which had flourished until the housing crash of 2008, had always been among the most welcoming for ex-offenders. But the economic downturn hit it hard, and most of those participating in the private deconstruction training that Bennink oversees are experienced construction crews.

Donnie Wilson, 55, and Neil Joseph, 45, are the Barclay crew leaders. "It's a great project," Wilson says. "These buildings need to come down, and we have the skills to do it." Wilson and Joseph are excited to be working for L&J Construction and are eager to see the project expanded into different parts of the city. Kelavin Weaver and Brian Huntley, both 27, are new to deconstruction work and shyly enthusiastic about making a career in the field. "I can see myself doing this for a while," Huntley says. "I like it."


The Barclay Deconstruction project is attracting national attention — including from the Funders' Network, which supports efforts toward more sustainable communities — and is being studied as a model for other cities.

Hollis Robbins is a professor of humanities at the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University and teaches African-American poetry and poetics at the Center for Africana Studies.

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