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Inmates Drive Workforce at Food Bank, Prep for Return to Freedom

The food bank uses inmates to help stock shelves and sort goods. In return, the men learn discipline and skills needed to find jobs when they're released.

Bruce Michalec, executive director of the Anne Arundel County Food and Resources Bank, looks over donated items that line the shelves in one of the warehouse’s rooms. Capital News Service photo by Megan Brockett.
Bruce Michalec, executive director of the Anne Arundel County Food and Resources Bank, looks over donated items that line the shelves in one of the warehouse’s rooms. Capital News Service photo by Megan Brockett.
By Megan Brockett
Capital News Service

When the Maryland Food Bank put out a recent call for volunteers, with all three branches drowning in the influx of holiday-season donations, things at the Anne Arundel County Food and Resources Bank were running as smoothly as ever.

The Crownsville facility relies on a dozen inmates to perform the bulk of the food bank’s heavy lifting in return for time trimmed off sentences, part of an outside worker program that has helped to keep the food bank afloat for roughly two decades.

“I wouldn’t have any of this in here if it wasn’t for the prisoners,” executive director Bruce Michalec said, referring to the 30,000-square-foot facility crammed with well-organized stacks of food and rooms brimming with baby supplies, furniture and other donated goods.

“They’re the core of my existence,” he said.

Michalec, 74, founded the Anne Arundel Food and Resources Bank nearly three decades ago, opening the first warehouse in Deale in 1988. He had taken a part-time job distributing food to churches and pantries after the shoe company he had worked for closed. At the age of 48, the part-time job was the only one he could find.

Michalec said the government food was distributed once every three months then, and he quickly noticed a bigger need. He opened the food bank in Deale, with help from the state, local groups and volunteers, and it grew rapidly.

When the opportunity came for Michalec to use a building in Crownsville, a food bank board member pitched the idea of using inmates to help clean it out. What started then as a crew of four has grown to a dozen men from Ordnance Road Correctional Center who work Monday to Friday, and sometimes on the weekends, emptying tractor-trailers full of food, loading and unloading donated furniture and sorting through the truckloads of goods that pour in each day.

The food bank estimates that the number of hours clocked by inmates last year -- 17,336 hours in total -- was worth more than $173,000 in labor.

“They’re the mainstay of the food bank,” Michalec said. “I couldn’t hire the labor that they do here.”

The inmates get one day off their sentences for every five hours of work they put in at the food bank, part of what the correctional center calls an outsider worker program. About 50 inmates participate in one of these programs, clocking more than 100,000 hours of work last year, according to Ordnance Road Correctional Center administrator William Martin.

“It keeps them busy, and it provides a service to community,” Martin said. “And it behooves them to go out and work hard and do a good job,” so they can take days off their sentence.

Michalec has made some changes to the program since its inception. The men that work for him now get a hot lunch, cooked by one of the inmates, and the guard that once accompanied the crew to the food bank stopped coming when Michalec told the correctional center it wasn’t necessary.

“The men are going to come out anyway,” he said. “Let’s start teaching them honesty and work ethic and get their heads turned around, so they come out [and] become good citizens.”

Danny Compton is one of the men who has seemed to prosper under the rigid structure of Michalec’s food bank. He worked for six months while serving a sentence for driving with a suspended license, a violation of his probation. He said the tough-love regiment of Michalec benefited him.

“He likes to give inmates a harder way because he feels that if you can’t handle him, complaining or whatever he’s doing then, you won't be able to handle [it in] the outside world,” Compton said. “It pays off.”

Michalec worries about what will happen to the men when they finish their sentences and head back into a still recovering economy. They have to be extremely skilled, he said, or employers “don’t want to hire them because they’ve been in jail.”

“I see a lot of people in my shoes today, where I was 25 years ago, without work,” he said. For many of them, especially the older ones, the prospects are dismal, Michalek said.

But clocking hours at the food bank can help inmates establish valuable work history and hone skills translatable to outside jobs, giving them a better chance of getting hired, according to Rebecca Benner, a re-entry specialist at the Anne Arundel Workforce Development Corporation.

And working at a non-profit organization, like the food bank, brings added value in the self-worth and sense of confidence it can instill.

“I think it may give them an advantage personally in how they feel about their efforts, and that translates into confidence, and when you’re confident you prepare yourself better,” Benner said.

For Compton, 43, the outside worker program has translated into a full-time managerial job and a different perspective on life. The Baltimore native has served as front floor manager at the food bank for two and half months, and the experience has been good for him, he said.

“It’s helping me out, it’s just keeping me straight, keeping my head on straight,” Compton said. “I have a lot of hoops that I have to jump through to get here every day, but it’s OK.”

Compton now oversees the inmates, using to his advantage the fact that his own outside worker experience lies fewer than three months behind him. From his new perspective, he observes the men trying to turn their lives around, and the people at the food bank -- like Michalec -- who are quietly trying to steer them in the right direction.

“[Michalec] will look out for you if you need any help or anything like that,” Compton said. “He’s a great person, and this a great thing that he’s got going.”

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