By Emily Haile (Capital News Service)

Up before dawn, the prison inmates stand in the chill air around stainless steel tables, butcher knives in their hands.

Don't worry: They're taking part in a Thanksgiving tradition, cutting up turkeys for an annual meal in Baltimore that serves more than 25,000 needy people.

In its 25th year, Bea Gaddy's Thanksgiving Day meal has become a local institution, but few know about its longtime partnership with another institution: The Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

Last week, prisoners at the medium-security prison in Hagerstown de-boned and cooked nearly 900 turkeys, donated by Wichita-based Shady Brook Farms, and sent them to the Bea Gaddy Family Center for preparation.

For some, inmates with butcher knives might make them a little nervous, but in all his years working with inmates, plant supervisor Mike Fager Sr. has never felt threatened.

In fact, he feels good knowing that the plant is teaching inmates skills that will help them transition to the outside world.

Despite their circumstances, the incarcerated men are also happy to pitch in for a good cause.

"There's a lot of people that's less fortunate than I am," said 35-year-old Warren Holley, who's worked at the plant the past nine years while serving out a murder sentence.

The paycheck he gets from the plant takes pressure off the family. He has four teenaged children back home.

"I'm incarcerated, but still there's a lot of people that's out there that's homeless, they don't know where their next meal is coming from," said the Lexington Park native. "What we're doing is just a small part."

Connie Bass, director of the Bea Gaddy Family Center appreciates what the inmates do to make the legendary meal a reality each year.

She also believes that the skills they are learning are vital to their success.

"If we don't try to help people get back into society, we're just beating our heads back into the wall," she said.

When they aren't volunteering for the holiday, the inmates work year-round at the plant making hot dogs, hamburger patties and roast beef.

Built in 1992, the meat plant is one of the most coveted jobs for inmates, paying $3 to $4 dollars a day.

But the inmates aren't just cutting meat. They're slicing their jail time in half, with 15 days lopped off their sentence for each month of work.

The plant employs 70 to 80 inmates at a time, six supervisors, and is inspected by the United States Department of Agriculture. As the highest-paying gig an inmate can get, the waiting list for jobs can be up to two years.

Fager is used to people's bad perceptions about prisons. But locking offenders up and throwing away the key, doesn't help anyone, he said, and it's taxpayers who bear the burden.

The meat plant's training program hopes to change that, and it has had good success.

Inmates who work at the plant have half of the recidivism rate of the general prison population.

"You get a guy, you teach him a trade, you get him out of the streets," said Fager. "You get him working again, let him become a tax-paying citizen again. Plus, you get his life straightened out."

Completely self-sufficient, the plant isn't funded with tax dollars, Fager said. Though it doesn't compete with the private sector, the company pulled in $6.4 million last year selling meats to the state's prisons and mental institutions.

"I think we make a very good product," said Fager. "We don't serve filet mignon or rib-eyes or lobster tail . . . they get a good meal."

"It tastes good to me," said 5-foot-4-inch Mark Grant, who's been incarcerated for murder for 23 of his 38 years.

Working at the plant for the past three years has enabled Grant to open up his own bank account. He's saved about $2,000.

Grant, who waited three years to get a job at the plant, started out on the grinders and carrying meat lugs, or bins for carrying meat, and is slowly moving his way up to work with the knives.

"We don't treat them like scum inmates, we treat them like men," said Fager. "If you treat people with respect, you get that in return."

Once they get paroled, some of Fager's old employees call him at home to update him on their progress.

"I got a family, I'm a meat man, you know," Fager recalls a former employee telling him proudly.

"That's very gratifying," he said. "That means a lot that you did straighten somebody out."

Calvin McNeill, 42, has worked at the meat plant for 15 years and is one of Fager's star workers.

"When I first got locked up it wasn't heard of . . . working in a shop like this," said McNeill, locked up for 26 years for murder.

"It's a dream come true for a lot of us," said the Baltimore native.

Fager said he believes that the worst thing about the prison system is a lack of preparation for the outside world.

"Too many get out with no skills and they're right back in, so what have we gained?," he said.

McNeill's favorite part of the job is passing the trade onto new inmates.

"I'm also a teacher," he said. "It's a trade that you're learning that you can pass on when you go out on the street."

Grant agreed. "I'm just trying to get back," he said. "I want to be an asset to the community. I don't want to be a revolving door."


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