Peter Krouse, The Plain Dealer

GRAFTON, Ohio — James Collins has spent the last several years learning how to grow flowers and vegetables — everything from preparing soil to ridding plants of damaging pests.

A soapy spray works on squash beetles, he said this month, planting zinnias will attract goldfinches that eat insects.

“I prefer, myself, not to use chemicals on a product that’s going to be consumed,” said Collins, who wore a white T-shirt under his suspenders and a green bucket-shaped hat for protection from the sun.

Last year, the gardens where Collins toiled provided 4,000 pounds of vegetables to the Second Harvest food bank — and one pest he didn’t have to worry about was deer. The fences just beyond his corn and tomatoes are more than 10 feet high and topped with razor wire.

Collins, 37, is serving time for murder at Grafton Correctional Institution. He’s also an aide to the prison horticulture instructor and hopes the garden training he’s received will help land him a good-paying job when he gets out, which he hopes will be in two years when he’s up for parole.

If only it were that simple.

For every former prisoner seeking a job, there needs to be a willing employer. But many businesses won’t hire someone with a criminal record. They worry what people will think or that the ex-offender might revert to his or her old ways. Grafton, which is in Lorain County, and other prisons offer a variety of scholastic and vocational classes to at least improve an inmates chances.

Grafton has held job fairs in the past, said Bill Frey, a retired elementary school principal who is now the prison’s school administrator, but primarily only social services agencies showed up to provide information and resources.

Collins plans to pair his new found knowledge with his construction background so he can not only build houses but do the landscaping, too.

“Another thing I want to do is community gardens,” he said.

Prison officials like to see that kind of determination from inmates, rather than have them languish behind bars. Studies show inmates who learn skills in prison are less likely to return. A study by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction from 1995, the most recent data available, shows that getting a GED in prison reduces recidivism by more than 14 percent and the completion of a vocational program by more than 8 percent.

Charles See, executive director of the community re-entry program at Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry in Cleveland, said the climate for hiring ex-cons has deteriorated over the past decade. The tough-on-crime movement has made people less forgiving, and now there’s also a tough economy to deal with.

But even when times are good, companies ignore felons for no other reason than they can, See said, even if the offense has nothing to do with the job.

“We understand embezzlers won’t be hired to be bookkeepers at banks,” he said. “We get that.”

But someone who went to prison for writing bad checks shouldn’t be held back from a job in a scrap yard, he said.

Jay Wodtley regional manager for cleaning company CMS Sourcing Solutions is an exception. He hires primarily ex-offenders at $8 an hour to clean the offices and bathrooms of his corporate clients, which include steel mills and auto plants.

“They’re awesome employees,” said Wodtley, who employs about 15 people in the Cleveland area and another 30 outside Philadelphia, Pa. They learn how to clean in prison, he said, whether its sterilizing urinals or stripping floors. Plus they work hard because they don’t want to go back.

Wodtley said most of his hires committed non-violent crimes, although some had gun charges. The violent offender always has a tougher time finding work.

State Sen. Shirley Smith, a Democrat from Cleveland, has proposed legislation that calls for removing from job applications the box that asks if an applicant has been convicted of a felony. It would apply to both public and private employers. Several states and cities have done something similar already.

Smith believes that by banning the box, more ex-offenders will get the chance to interview and make a good impression that might override their criminal background.

The federal government is doing its part, too. It offers tax credits to companies that hire ex-cons, as well as insurance against the loss of money or property caused by an ex-offender in their employ.

Most prisoners who enter Grafton do not have a high school degree. Many get their GED while behind bars. Still others take college-level classes offered through Ashland University to obtain advanced job training. Ohio University provides correspondence courses, but they must be paid for by the inmate, and degree choices are limited.

The vocational classes remain very popular among inmates, Frey said. Not only can they learn to be a professional gardener, but they can learn to weld, use metal-working machines or repair cars. Each program has a long waiting list, he said. The prisoners are placed in the programs near the end of their terms.

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Story Compliments Of The Plain Dealer

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