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Report Says Reentry Agencies Should Hire Former Prisoners

When released prisoners meet throngs of otherwise upstanding, Ivy League WASPs offering transitional assistance, it’s like getting a tune-up from a mechanic with clean fingernails. It simply doesn’t inspire much confidence in the work being done.

Thus, a recent collaborative report led by the Prisoner Reentry Institute at New York City’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice proposes that transitional agencies become “culturally competent” to better assist the nearly 10 million people who are released from prisons and jails across the U.S. each year.

Cultural competence is an academic concept that, when implemented by reentry services, reengineers the revolving doors of recidivism and relapse by employing former prisoners and recovering addicts as counselors, mentors and case workers. It is also a pragmatic solution to finding jobs for released prisoners who desperately need them.

“Because incarceration both profoundly impacts those who experience it and disproportionately affects low-income people of color,” the June 2011 report notes, “the response to it needs to be culturally competent across a spectrum of issues.”

Hiring former prisoners would simultaneously boost the credibility of reentry agencies and undermine job discrimination against people with criminal records. As of 2009 only eight states, including New York, had passed laws “protecting the formerly incarcerated from job discrimination by private employers.” Thus, the reentry community – including rehab centers and vocational and housing services – should consider employing people from among the population they serve.

The report also argues that “the services needed ... do not require advanced degrees, and the formerly incarcerated could be trained to provide those services, having lived through similar experiences.”

The John Jay report documents the successes of the Fortune Society in New York City and London-based Thames Reach, a charity that assists the homeless, as case examples.

Founded in 1967, the non-profit Fortune Society is a comprehensive reentry organization with a $16 million budget that employs a staff of 190. Like many transitional agencies, it offers substance abuse treatment, parenting classes and housing assistance. But unlike the majority of its counterparts, around 70 percent of Fortune Society employees have histories of incarceration, substance abuse and/or homelessness, and more than 80 percent are minorities.

Thames Reach helps London’s homeless get off the streets, find jobs and receive educational opportunities. Over a five-year period, Thames Reach quadrupled the percentage of its employees who were formerly homeless, from 6% of the organization’s staff in 2005 to 23% in 2010. It then commissioned a study to measure the results, which concluded the organization had realized “lowered costs without any reduction in quality of services” by hiring people who had been homeless.

According to Fortune Society CEO JoAnne Page, cultural competence is ultimately a matter of integrity for organizations that work with people who are frequently ostracized.

“If we say we have certain values, then we have to walk the talk,” she said. “If we want others to take back in people with histories of incarceration, substance abuse and homelessness, we have to do it and promote it.”

Sources:; “Employing Your Mission: Building Cultural Competence in Reentry Service Agencies Through the Hiring of Individuals Who Are Formerly Incarcerated and/or in Recovery,” The Fortune Society and John Jay College of Criminal Justice (June 2011)

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