by Kevin Bliss
Communities and politicians are acting in concerted effort during a brisk economy to reduce the obstacles preventing recently incarcerated citizens from once again becoming productive members of society. States are holding business summits geared at facilitating the hiring of ex-offenders, passing bills to increase employment opportunities and to help restore lost rights, and holding vocational training programs coupled with job fairs within prisons to help secure employment before release. Activists say this is a bipartisan issue that both sides are working together to resolve.
In November, Governor Kim Reynolds held a summit at Iowa Correctional Institute for Women in Mitchellville. “We have a moral responsibility to think differently,” she stated. “Prison shouldn’t be one stop in a circle that leads back to prison. It needs to connect people with opportunities to improve themselves and their skills.”
In an event the same month, North Liberty Grace Community Church manager Jean Keeley, along with 30 business leaders, played characters to demonstrate barriers ex-prisoners face in acquiring personal identification, employment, and housing.
“We’ve had many past simulation attendees that just give up and stay in jail, and we know that can happen for individuals, too,” said Michelle Heinz, executive director of InsideOut Reentry. “It can just be so many barriers and so challenging that it makes it hard to keep moving forward.”
Governor Kay Ivey of Alabama stated, “A proven way to reduce inmate population to make sure that those inmates who have been released go on to productive lives and do not return to prison.” She awarded a $99,546 grant to I.F. Ingram State Technical College to help those being released from prison find employment.
Since President Obama announced the Fair Chance Business Pledge in 2016, securing business owners’ agreement to help reduce barriers to employment for people with felony records, unemployment in the United States has dropped to a 50-year low at 3.6%. The Pledge included such measures as an agreement to “Ban the Box” (a section on job applications asking about prior criminal history). Initial organizations such as Coca-Cola, Starbucks, and Google signed the Pledge and 35 states have since legislated similar laws.
Many states are also looking at the option of streamlining ex-offender rights restoration, one of the factors that contribute to a 40% national recidivism rate. A survey conducted in 2010 showed that 33% of all black males have a felony conviction suggesting a significant amount of blacks could get lost in the revolving door of incarceration.
Vice President of the Poverty and Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress Rebecca Vallas stated, “We’re creating a permanent underclass of workers who don’t have the same opportunities as others.” Vallas also promotes the Clean Slate campaign to automatically erase a person’s criminal history after a set period of time following their release.
Some states permit vocational training followed by job fairs within their prisons. Michigan boasts a 95% job placement rate with those enrolled in their Vocational Village program.
In late-November, Pulaski County, Kentucky, implemented a three-phase program, Comprehensive Rehabilitation of Inmates Transforming Individuals, Community, and Livelihoods (CRITICAL), assisting prisoners prior to release. The first stage teaches soft skills used in the job market, the next provides vocational or educational training as determined by a program leader, followed by job interview skills training.
Jailer Anthony McCollum said he believes it will slow down the revolving door on the most crowded jail in the state. “There’s a lot of jobs to be offered here in Pulaski County, and we got to thinking, one of the pools to pull from would be people that are incarcerated that deserve a second chance,” he said.
Ex-prisoner Robby Grant said a sentence really is not over when offenders are released, but that the stigma remains for the rest of their lives. “You kind of get to a place where you feel like maybe you don’t deserve ... you aren’t going to get a second chance,” he said. “You are never going to get the chance to redeem yourself.” Advocates for second chances for ex-offenders hope these and other measures will help reverse this condition.
Sources: kcrg.com, npr.org, alabamanews.net, desmoinesregister.com, wkms.org
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