Citywide re-entry programs put ex-offenders to work.
Former offenders face a number of obstacles in getting stable work. The difficulty usually starts with the first page of a job application, with the question “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?”
Roberta Meyers-Peeples, the director of the New York City-based National H.I.R.E. Network, says applications with a “yes” are often thrown away unread.
Aside from the scarlet letter effect of that answer, there are other issues to contend with: unraveled social networks, the lack of a high school diploma, the social stigma of having lost years of one’s life to incarceration, a lack of self-confidence—not to mention the potential temptation of having to walk by people on the corner who are making $1,000 a day selling drugs.
Yet statistics clearly show that getting a former offender a job is a good way to ensure they stay away from crime—thus enhancing public safety. But municipalities and nonprofits struggle to find the right mix of social services and job training to get—and keep—former prisoners employed.
One out of every 100 American adults is behind bars. When those on parole or probation are included, one out of every 31 is under some form of correctional control. The nation’s overreliance on punishing crime rather than preventing it keeps people shifting between unemployment, short stints at low-wage jobs and prison.
While Freeman enjoys the benefits of a tight-knit family, years of getting hired and fired from low-wage jobs are an impediment. In 2002, he was released to a halfway house, found a job working at Tommy D’s Home Improvement Center, and a year later was fully released to his grandmother’s home. But 19 months later he was laid off due to slow business.
In January 2006, one of Freeman’s cousins who worked at Burger King got him a job. While waiting for a trolley on Lancaster Avenue on a day off from work, some old friends pulled up and offered him a ride home, which he accepted. About four blocks later, the car was pulled over. Everyone was ordered out of the car. Freeman says that the police found a gun under the front seat and ran their names. Finding that Freeman was on probation, the officers charged him with gun possession. Even though the charges were dismissed because the police involved did not show up to testify in court, he was put away for another year for violating his parole.
Freeman was released on parole again in March 2008, only to be rearrested in April when the Philadelphia District Attorney announced he’d be retried for the gun charge. The case was dismissed eight months later when the police again failed to show up in court.
Now that Freeman is entering the second phase of Philly ReNew, he’s getting ready to look for a job yet again. But the current economic crisis doesn’t bode well for him.
“It’s rough out there,” says Meyers-Peeples. “With a tight labor market, it’s going to become much more difficult for people with criminal records.”
That’s why the director of the city’s new sheltered workshop program thinks it stands a real chance to make a difference. Carolyn Harper, interim director of the Mayor’s Office for the Reentry of Ex-offenders, hopes the sheltered workshop will “stack the deck in ex-offenders’ favor.” Harper’s office refers offenders to places that provide social services—like a life coach and psychiatric help—along with training in the “soft skills” that any job requires: showing up on time, playing nice with co-workers and bosses.
Mark Boyd, president of Goodwill Industries of Southern New Jersey and Philadelphia and the Garden State’s former labor commissioner, says he first came up with the idea of sheltered workshops for former prisoners 15 years ago while serving on a state commission looking at employment for ex-offenders. He approached the Mayor’s Office with the idea last year.
“There’s a model that’s been used for people with disabilities for years. It’s a very simple concept. You take a population that you’re trying to serve, in this case ex-offenders,” he says. “The theory is that if you can bring this pool of people you’re trying to serve, instead of sending them out to get a job, you bring the work to them. You do everything from stuffing envelopes to light manufacturing.”
Goodwill and the city hope the workshop experience will fill out former prisoners’ resumes, impart soft and hard skills, provide necessary support services, and, finally, get people jobs.
MORE aims to have former prisoners spend up to 90 days in the workshops before being placed in permanent employment, earning $8 an hour.
Given the fraught history of sheltered workshops, however, there are some who are skeptical of MORE’s initiative.
“There’s not a lot of evidence that success in a sheltered workshop is a very good predictor of success in the community,” says John Butterworth, research and policy coordinator at the University of Massachusetts-Boston’s Institute for Community Inclusion. “There’s also not a lot of evidence that people move from sheltered workshops to community employment.”
Butterworth, who ran a sheltered workshop for people with disabilities for six years, says they’re not good places to prepare people for the real world. He also doubts that work in a sheltered workshop helps much on a resume.
“I think there are other ways to build a resume. And I think an employer who inquires about job experience is going to know the difference between work at a Goodwill facility and work in a community job.”
At the Pennsylvania Prison Society, where ReNew takes place, Program Director Betty-Ann Izenman is unsure if MORE and Goodwill’s sheltered workshop will be as effective as a transitional work program like the one her organization runs. Izenman says programs that place former prisoners directly into temporary positions in the community as a stepping-stone to full-time employment may be more effective.
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.