Citywide re-entry programs put ex-offenders to work.
Every year roughly 40,000 ex-prisoners are released back into the Philadelphia area from prison and jail. Stigmatized by the “ex-con” label and its accompanying perceptions, many of these men and women find it difficult to find jobs and, without other resources, fall back on what they know: old friends and habits from their criminal pasts. Recognizing the need to provide alternatives, the city is now implementing innovative ways to help them obtain and keep jobs.
Last month Goodwill Industries of Southern New Jersey and the city of Philadelphia announced the creation of what appears to be the country’s first sheltered workshop specifically designed for recently released prisoners. The Mayor’s Office for the Reentry of Ex-offenders (MORE) is coordinating the project, funded by a $1.4 million grant from the Knight Foundation.
For decades, sheltered workshops employed people with physical and mental disabilities to do a variety of low-skill tasks. The workshops don’t provide exposure to traditional employment contexts—they “shelter” their employees from the rest of the working world. For that reason, the workshops have been falling out of favor with disability advocates, who say they fail to integrate people into the community. Many advocates for ex-offenders, however, think that the model—appropriately tweaked—might work with former prisoners.
Last Friday, Leonard Freeman and 22 other former offenders graduated from the first phase of the Philly ReNew Program at the Pennsylvania Prison Society’s North Broad Street office. The 36-year-old and his classmates received certificates from Cameron Holmes, a Prison Society staffer who spent 22 years behind bars and faced his own employment challenges when he was released almost three years ago. Like the city’s new sheltered workshop program, Philly ReNew is designed to ease the transition from prison to community.
The participants in ReNew spent six weeks doing mock job interviews, discussing common difficulties and building up each other’s self-esteem. It also offered hope to men like Freeman, who are determined to stay out of jail but haven’t had much success in doing so.
“Before joining the program,” he says, “I had some work, but not 9 to 5. Just some guys who needed help sheetrocking with cement. I want consistent work.”
That’s something that would be new for him. Leonard has been in and out of the criminal justice system for two decades. His first arrest, for a schoolyard fight, was at 15. Now, he wears an electronic monitor on his ankle to ensure that he’s home by his 9 p.m. curfew.
In a country with one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, a first arrest often leads to a second, pushing the chance of a regular job and a life in the community increasingly out of the picture.
Freeman’s story isn’t atypical. He grew up living with relatives in West and Southwest Philly and says he was a good student until high school, when he started to get distracted by the opportunity to make money by dealing drugs.
But he kept himself out of it, and joined the Job Corps in Woodstock, Md., a federal program offering job training and a GED to people ages 16 to 24.
“I saw it as an opportunity to travel, to be independent,” he says. “I thought I was an adult.”
He was expelled five and a half months later due to a serious fight with another student. Another attempt at regimented life—the Army reserves—also ended poorly, after Freeman had disagreements with his commanding officer.
When he got back to Philly, Freeman got a job selling perfumes and colognes.
“The money was all right,” he says, “but not enough to really be independent. When I was back here, I started to see everyone in the life of making money, selling drugs.”
It wasn’t long before Freeman was back in cuffs, this time for possession of crack cocaine. He was given two years probation and got a job recycling paper.
But the lure of the game proved irresistible. “I still had a little bit of street in me,” he says. In May of 1996, he was arrested for robbing two women and was sentenced to five to 20 years in prison.
Like many inmates, Freeman used his lengthy stint in prison to rebuild his fractured life. He participated in programs for his drug use and took stress and anger management classes. After five and a half years in prison, he was ready to re-enter the community, a task that would prove difficult.
City Hall's program to provide tax breaks for the hiring of ex-offenders hasn't enrolled a single business. Critics say the program has been a confusing mess from the get-go.