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An Untapped Workforce: Programs aim to transition people from prison to employment

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With roughly 19,000 people released annually from prisons through the Missouri Department of Corrections, state and city officials are renewing a focus on programs that ease offenders back into the workforce.

The DOC’s Office of Reentry Services has taken a closer look at how best to assist people moving from prison to civilian life. Shelle Jacobs, re-entry coordinator, said it’s imperative the program addresses reoffenders, which annually ranges in population from 30,000 to 32,000 statewide. She said Missouri in 2017 ranked as the eighth largest prison population nationwide.

“Missouri is at a critical state right now. If we don’t do something to turn this tide, we’re going to have to build new prisons,” Jacobs said, adding Gov. Mike Parson mentioned in his Jan. 16 State of the State address he has no interest in constructing new prisons. “We need to get better in helping people with the transition from prison to the community.”

Jacobs said employment is a key component to offenders avoiding a return to prison. According to the state DOC, 69 percent of offenders who’ve never had full-time employment will return to prison in two years. However, that number drops down to 23 percent for those who’ve previously been employed full-time. 

Those leaving prisons today are returning to a market with low unemployment rates – 3.1 percent statewide in December 2018 – and employers are in a hiring mood, Jacobs said.

“Employers can’t find enough people to fill entry-level positions,” she said, adding she focuses on educating employers on the viability of former inmates in the workforce. “I hear from employers all the time that they’re turning away business because they cannot fill their open positions. We have got this untapped workforce in our prisons, and a lot of these people are very skilled. They have the ability to be really solid members of the workforce. They just need that chance.”

Making a connection
One of those employers is Third Street Sportswear Manufacturing Inc. in Ozark. Co-owner Becky Thomas said the 33-year-old, family-run business currently employs 50, but is looking for more.

“I need to hire more, but can’t find them,” she said.

After hearing about the DOC’s re-entry program 18 months ago, Thomas has actively sought potential employees at the Women’s Eastern Reception Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Vandalia. She made her first hire from the facility around a year ago, and that employee continues to work for the children’s clothing manufacture.

She’s since hired five others released from the prison.

“We’re specifically hiring industrial sewing machine operators,” Thomas said, adding she’s conducted job interviews over the phone, online and in person at the prison. “That’s a skill set that’s seldom taught anywhere, so we have a really unique relationship going with the Department of Corrections because I found out they actually do train that. It’s a skill set that’s actually a job, so women are choosing to take a job learning how to sew there in the prison system.”

Another local connection into the state prison system was established last summer, said Carmen May, workforce development director with the Missouri Job Center. She helped create a program with the Job Center in 2006 called About Persons with Past Legal Issues in Employment. May said APPLIE classes provide job-seeking tips for people with legal convictions to help them find employment. The classes are generally held in the Missouri Job Center offices in Springfield and Branson, and occasionally at the U.S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield and the Ozark Correctional Center in Fordland. 

Those classes are single-day offerings, typically three hours long, she said. In July 2018, an expanded version of the program was introduced at OCC that works with inmates who are 60-90 days away from release. The six-week class dives deep into preparing soon-to-be-released offenders find their path into the workforce. T.J. Parnique, a workforce development specialist with the Job Center, teaches the class, which incorporates resume basics, mock interviews and filling out applications. It concludes with a job fair held in the prison.

“We’ve had some good success. We just finished our third class,” May said, adding 24 have completed the program at OCC thus far. Of that total, 16 have been released from prison, and at least 10 have been employed.

Becoming a job seeker
May said she has pretty high expectations for the program, and believes its newer and lengthier opportunity at OCC can result in a lot of success. The class teaches offenders to talk about their past honestly, she said, but to also build up their job-seeking skills.

“The class, whether it’s outside prison or inside, what we teach them is how to job search as a job seeker, not as someone with a legal issue,” May said.

“But we also teach them how to talk about that legal issue in an honest way. It’s not about lying; it’s not about covering it up. It’s who they are and who they will be for the rest of their life.”

Jacobs said the DOC and Springfield programs both have the goal of breaking the cycle of recidivism, while also providing employers the option to pursue a workforce solution they may have not previously considered. 

“Although these people have a felony in their history, they can still be a very solid employee for them and help them meet their production needs as well,” Jacobs said, adding a number of those incarcerated are learning skills like welding, electrical work and plumbing.

Others may be working in sewing or manufacturing factories in prison, she added.

“When these people come out, they have skills that can be very attractive to a potential employer,” she said, adding employers are by and large very open-minded.

Citing DOC numbers, Jacobs said 80 percent of the state prison population is nonviolent. 

Thomas said she’s comfortable hiring former offenders, and has advocated the DOC program to other employers seeking answers to their staffing shortages. 

“I believe 100 percent in the program,” she said. “Have we hit our total stride? I don’t think so. But I think we’ve made a huge gain.”

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