The Equity Factor

Giving Building Materials and Ex-Inmates a Second Chance in Baltimore

Brick + Board says it's tackling two big issues, blight and unemployment, at the same time.

A Brick + Board crew at a salvage job (Credit: Brick + Board)

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After a five-year stint in prison, Kevin King stepped back into Baltimore with one goal: starting his life anew. The 52-year-old got linked up with the Living Classrooms Foundation, which helps put ex-offenders in touch with job opportunities, and he was eager to take on any work that came his way.

One of his first gigs came through the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore. He was assigned to sweep the pedestrian paths and docks at the heart of the Inner Harbor district. “I’d walk around there with a trash can with wheels on it, a broom and a dust pan,” he says.

But a few months into his work, he got a call from his counselor, who asked him if he wanted to join a totally different industry — one a bit more mentally engaging, and one that could lead to better job opportunities down the line. A small manufacturer in east Baltimore called Brick + Board was hiring workers to help reprocess old building materials for use in new construction and design projects.

“I said ‘I’d love to.’ Then they sent a couple of guys up to do an interview, and I never looked back,” he says.

Brick + Board works in tandem with another local nonprofit, Details Deconstruction, in a partnership that Director Max Pollock says is tackling Baltimore’s unemployment and housing vacancy issues in tandem. It goes like this: Details sends crews into abandoned houses and other properties to yank out brick, wood and other sturdy pieces of material that are just intact enough to reprocess and use again in future building projects.

Then workers like King at Brick + Board’s facility prep the material for another life in the construction industry. That could be in the form of a wood or brick structure that’s added to the post-industrial decor of someone’s new home, or even major LEED-certified projects like the $160 million Exelon business and apartment building that’s getting built in downtown.

To date, working on providing the building materials for the Exelon tower has been Brick + Board’s biggest project. But with every new contract the work’s impact spreads across the Baltimore community. Since February 2016 the organization has hired 100 employees from across the city who’ve either had past drug addictions, no college education or a history of incarceration. “And lot of times, it’s all three,” says Pollock.

An estimated 10,000 people are released from prison and return to their homes in Baltimore every year, according to the Episcopal Community Services of Maryland. But an estimated 4,000 of those will return to prison just three years after their release.

Those who get the re-entry training and job opportunities like King, however, are significantly less likely to end up back in jail. And while the state spends an estimated $38,000 per person every year for those incarcerated, re-entry programs that help ex-inmates step back into society only spend an average of $5,000 per individual.

Those numbers don’t factor in the new spending power ex-inmates get once they secure long-term employment outside the prison walls. Even though Brick + Board can only offer work — which starts at $13.50 an hour and provides full benefits — as long as there are buildings to deconstruct, Pollock says the relationships his workers forge on the job site help them move on past the company and up into better-paying positions.

“In addition to learning the ropes, learning how to use tools, and learning the vocabulary, a lot of our guys end up meeting other tradesmen,” he says. One worker was with Brick + Board for two years before moving on to become an apprentice bricklayer for a contractor he met working for Brick + Board.

“That example is like the gold standard, that’s what we shoot for,” says Pollock.

In a 2014 study of the Baltimore region by the Opportunity Collaborative, about 21 percent of the 1,000 job seekers they interviewed said their criminal records had stifled the hunt for work. Three out of five job seekers were struggling to find jobs that paid decent enough wages for them to support their families, and 49 percent said the costs required to get more training to qualify for better-paying jobs was out of their budget.

That’s why King says he’s grateful for the work Brick + Board lets him do. He walks around his city with a new appreciation of the buildings, and a new perspective on the histories within their material.

“It amazes me that the stuff we see on a daily basis, like when going by dilapidated houses, stuff like that, the material we get from that can get refurbished and reused in so many different ways,” he says. “You know how they say another man’s junk is another man’s treasure? That’s how I look at my job.”

And according to him, his job is high in demand because Brick + Board’s business is “booming.”

“I truly value my job right now, because I have job security,” he says. “I feel good getting up to go to work every other day.”

The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

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Johnny Magdaleno is a journalist, writer and photographer. His writing and photographs have been published by The Guardian, Al Jazeera, NPR, Newsweek, VICE News, the Huffington Post, the Christian Science Monitor and others. He was the 2016-2017 equitable cities fellow at Next City. 

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Tags: jobsblightbaltimoreprisons

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