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$1.1 Million Colorado Initiative Set to Assist Prisoners With More Employment Opportunities Upon Release

by Keith Sanders

Individuals leaving prison often face obstacles securing basic necessities like employment, housing, and health care. This can make reintegration into society exceedingly difficult. The restrictions and limited opportunities that ex-prisoners face often contribute to higher recidivism rates, especially the inability to find gainful employment. 

Now Colorado will address these issues with a new $1.1 million initiative announced by Attorney General Phil Weiser (D) on November 9, 2021. Over a three-year period, the state Department of Law will distribute $900,000 of the funds to the state Department of Corrections (DOC) and the balance in the form of grants to community organizations supporting formerly incarcerated individuals with “job skills, mental health support, housing and other basic necessities.”

“Employers that think out of the box and can tap into a talented, dedicated pool of potential employees, who need jobs and are ready for jobs, will benefit immensely,” said Gov. Jared Polis (D).

The emphasis on employment is not only critical for its potential economic impact but also for removing barriers ex-prisoners face when trying to enter the job market. According to data provided by Weiser’s office, DOC releases over 8,500 prisoners each year, almost half of whom “return to prison within three years for new crimes, or for violating terms and conditions of parole.”

The initiative aims to reduce that recidivism rate by investing money in re-entry programs and creating a network of businesses, known as “first chance” employers, to hire ex-prisoners. DOC will also be developing expanded pre-release services geared towards “transitional work experiences.”

Weiser said that innovative programs and services are key because, as a “state, we share a collective interest in ensuring that every person who leaves prison re-enters our communities successfully and does not take actions that may put them back into prison.”

The re-entry initiative, which has been in the planning stages for close to eighteen months, will expand smaller re-entry programs and services that already exist throughout the state. The initiative will essentially coordinate efforts and infuse much needed funds into those pre-existing programs and organizations. 

Even on their smaller scale, those programs have proved successful. Breakthrough, a nonprofit that supports individuals with criminal backgrounds, partners with correctional facilities to provide services preparing prisoners for the free world.

Alexis McKinley, who served six-and-a-half years in DOC for aggravated motor vehicle theft, graduated from Breakthrough in 2019 and found work within a week after release as a traffic control employee. Now she works as a customer experience representative at Checkr (a company focused on providing fair background checks for people with criminal records). She credits Breakthrough with helping turn her life around.

“I’m married. I just bought my first house. I actually care about life now and I care about people. I didn’t used to care about any of that,” she said.

Companies that hire ex-prisoners also express how transformative the experience can be to provide employment opportunities. Drew Patterson, who owns Basic Industries, a manufacturer in Buena Vista, has been hiring ex-prisoners for over two years.

“I feel like for a lot of these guys, their stories have always been told for them: This is who you are, based on what you’ve done,” Patterson commented, adding that “their stories are so much more vibrant than that. In a lot of ways, they’re not that different from ours. For me personally, it’s been an amazing thing for our company.”

Success stories like these help change the narrative about ex-prisoners and the stigma associated with their criminal past. This in turn makes businesses reassess their perception of ex-prisoners and hire more of them as they leave prison. Hopefully, Colorado’s initiative will set an example for other states to follow. As a matter of priorities though, the Colorado DOC budget is $959 million for 2021. Almost a billion dollars to cage people and little is spent on programs that assist prisoners in reentering society. Which is part of a 40 year trend.  

Source: Colorado Sun

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