By design, incarceration isolates people from their communities. But the vast majority of individuals – 95 percent – will eventually re-enter society. Unfortunately, about two-thirds of these returning citizens will commit another crime within three years of their release.
Focusing on re-entry can improve these odds, both for the formerly incarcerated and for their communities. Finding employment quickly upon release can reduce an individual’s likelihood of engaging in future criminal behavior. Employment helps ensure that the formerly incarcerated find a path to successful re-entry and do not fall back on criminal behaviors to make ends meet. In the process, it also helps individuals find dignity in working.
Instead of waiting until the day they leave prison, we should be proactive in giving the formerly incarcerated the tools they need to succeed. Programs that prepare and match people with living-wage employment before they leave jail or prison engage in a forward-thinking approach to the recidivism problem.
One of the most effective methods of ensuring job placement post-release is to invite employers inside prisons to meet with inmates. Employers often have preconceptions and fears about employing the formerly incarcerated. The opportunity to meet with inmates can humanize them and reduce the stigma employers often associate with those who have a criminal record.
A promising program within Arizona prisons does just this. Sunrise Employment Center in the Lewis Prison provides inmates with assistance in crafting resumes, interviewing, and searching for jobs, and has the support of Arizona’s Republican Gov. Doug Ducey. Over the course of one year, 120 inmates have completed the program and 55 inmates have found employment upon release. These interactions mutually benefit incarcerated people and employers – inmates have the opportunity to take the first steps to employment post-prison, and private-sector employers get to meet face to face with applicants and see beyond the mistakes that landed them in prison.
Another example of this approach comes from California. Mill Valley resident Diana Williams brings local Bay Area employers into San Quentin State Prison through her organization, the Prison to Employment Connection. Employers from CalTrans, Rubicon Bakery and other companies meet with incarcerated job-seekers and hold seminars and job-readiness trainings for them. Through her organization, Williams facilitates actual job opportunities with ready and willing employers to build connections that last beyond the prison walls.
Some programs take a more direct approach to employment. At the Leonard Greenstone Marine Technology Training Center in Chino, California, incarcerated people leave prison with tangible hope. Those who complete the intensive 1,800 hours of underwater welding training are guaranteed a job upon re-entry. MTTC staff recognize that inmates have entire sets of transferable skills which, when supported through training and professional development, equate to successful careers. The training center boasts a 93 percent success rate among its graduates.
Aly Tambour’s is a former inmate who achieved post-release success by completing a coding program inside San Quentin State Prison. The Code.7370 program, provided by The Last Mile, provides technical training to incarcerated men and jobs upon re-entry. Reflecting on his coding opportunity, Tambour observes, “It’s actually given me a skill, so when I get out of prison, I’m marketable, I can walk out of prison and get a job today.” The Last Mile and MTTC, among other in-custody vocational and apprenticeship programs run by the California Prison Industry Authority, tout a recidivism rate of just 7.3 percent.
As successful as these employment bridging programs are, there are barriers that can prove insurmountable for incarcerated people once they are released. In many jurisdictions, occupational licensing boards often outright reject people with conviction records from obtaining required licenses for a range of occupations. Commonly-licensed professions that restrict individuals from obtaining licensing include social worker, barber, cosmetologist, nurse, electrician and truck driver (and there are many more). Stringent state licensure rules can exclude qualified people who would otherwise be eligible if they did not have felony convictions. Prison employment programs, therefore, have to take into consideration occupational licensing barriers when training individuals for jobs.
If successful re-entry is the goal, then the focus has to be on re-entry from day one. Too often, the formerly incarcerated spend months, and even years, working hard to find work. Their time in prison – often seen as dead or wasted time – could be better spent on shaping a future by training for a job.
And the jobs exist. In fact, economists say there are “too many jobs [and] not enough workers.”
Over 600,000 people come home from prison every year. Let’s put them to work.