Hard Times

Citywide re-entry programs put ex-offenders to work.

By Daniel Denvir
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 9 | Posted Mar. 17, 2009

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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.

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Comments 1 - 9 of 9
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1. kelly said... on Mar 18, 2009 at 11:07PM

“I am a convicted felon with a masters degree (MBA) and 20 years sales experience in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries. I have not been able to find a job in the five years since my release. I cashed out two 401K's to support myself. I can only imagine the difficulties of finding permanent employment without a high school diploma. The challenges are real and quantifiable. It is time for some type of programs to aid in finding employment that supports real life expenses. I don't know what they are, but we need to have a dialogue with input from employers to find out what they need to assure them that giving a felon a job is not the wrong decision.”

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2. Mercedes L. Henderson said... on Mar 24, 2009 at 03:31PM

WOMEN ARE GOING TO PRISON at a faster rate than men.
75% are mothers, 36% have mental health issues, 80% were abused
at some time in their lives and 90% will return to our communities.
For this return to be successful, they need housing, employment,
clothing, medical and mental health services — for starters.
The Pennsylvania Prison Society
April 16, 2009 6 pm – 8 pm
Bryn Mawr Film Institute
824 W. Lancaster Ave. #5
Bryn Mawr
The Panel Discussion will be moderated by
Hon. Katherine Streeter Lewis
Panelists will include former prisoners, human
service providers, public officials and others.
Cathy Wise 215-564-6005, ext. 106
The Pennsylvania Prison Society is a statewide
non-profit organization headquartered in Philadelphia.
Founded in 1787 to advance humankind
by ensuring just and civilized treatment of prisoners,
it now advocates for needed changes in the
criminal justice system that make communities
stronger and neighborhoods safer. The Prison Society
provides prison visitation and monitoring
and direct services to prisoners, former offenders,
and their families.
245 N. Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA 19107
www.prisonsociety.org > 215-564-6005
A panel discussion”

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3. Michele said... on Feb 3, 2010 at 02:03PM

“It doesn't help, that when a Ex-Felon is released from prison and if convicted of a Delivery Charge , they find Pa. has suspended their Drivers License. How can they even search for work to comply with their parole conditions. Not everybody lives in the city or where there is mass public transportation.”

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4. xoffender said... on Feb 9, 2010 at 04:05PM

“There's finally a website that is trying to help ex-offenders all over the country called notout.org. It's a work in progress but they're on the right track. People can post resumes and anonymously discuss opportunities and frustrations. I think most importantly it addresses the problem on a national level and it's a hub for networking local ideas. Good luck and keep ur head up!”

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5. Barbara Roane said... on Feb 24, 2010 at 10:23AM

“Good Morning,
I have a family member that was released from prison two months ago,
He can not fine a job. You have some programs in philly.
I gave him information for a program that i knew of . He went to the program that send him for a job. He get to the company. They did not have any more job. But this should have been checked befor he went to new jersey for the job. What do wee do as a people . I have a grandson what chance does my grandson have growing up in philly.

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6. Wil said... on Jul 28, 2010 at 02:15PM

“I am writing a college paper about this topic of repeat offenders and their return to society. Thanks for your comment as it sheds light on just how serious this problem can be. And the choices that man and women are faced with when trying to readjust to society.”

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7. Anonymous said... on Aug 5, 2010 at 12:30PM

“It must be hard for an inmate with a turbulant life and no long credit and money to come up with anything resembling a "home plan" that the department of corrections want for inmates to be released or get thrown back into prison. They all plan for a job and place to stay, but no one want to hire an former con, so both are very difficult to get especially with a down economy. "Home plan" might as well be a "dream plan".”

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8. Jose F. Torres said... on Aug 19, 2010 at 09:07AM

“To Whom it mai concern

Do you have an updated list of companies hiring ex offenders in the Philadelphia, PA area
Your expertise will greatly be appreciated

Thank you

Jose F. Torres
Life Skills Instructor/Certified Peer Spec
Impact Services, Vet Program, Labor Dept
215-739-5774 Ext: 435”

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9. Anonymous said... on Apr 18, 2012 at 08:06AM

“My son parole date is in July. He will be sent to a halfway house in either philly where he grew up or in Harrisburg where he was incarcerated. He has spent many years off and on in jail due to his drug abuse and the way he chose to support his addiction.. He always tried when he got out and even got some good jobs. I have researched the re entry programs. I am not sure if I should send him all the information I researched or let him do it. I do not want to appear as a mother hen hovering over him. He knows he has all of our support and we love him unconditionally and want to help him, We have always been there for him. In the past I guess we were so glad he was out, we ended up doing every thing for him. We do not want to repeat this mistake. We do not owe him anything. We only want him to be strong and do the reentry for himself. I guess I am asking where do we draw the lines in helping where it will be for the good of and not crippling to his re entry success.”


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