Employing ex-prisoners can benefit businesses

TRAVERSE CITY – Every year more than 11,000 inmates are released back into their home communities. Nearly half return to prison within two years.

While there are many factors that contribute to recidivism, lack of a job often tops the list.

The Department of Corrections has implemented a pilot program that includes support for former prisoners to seek and keep employment-a wedge designed to break the cycle while benefiting the communities they return to and the state's strained budget.

Twelve counties in northwest Michigan are collectively designated as one of the original pilot programs for the Michigan Prisoner Re-Entry Initiative (MPRI).

"Keeping people employed is a vital part of community safety. If people are working, they're not committing crimes," says Janie McNabb of the Northwest Michigan Council of Governments, which oversees local implementation of the program.

As a first step, career advisors meet with prisoners while they're still incarcerated to assess their skills and plan for employment, as well as housing and other needs when they are released.

Job experience and training that a prisoner had in a former life are evaluated.

"You could have somebody with a degree in marketing who had some substance abuse issue tied into their offense," says MPRI community coordinator Kirt Baab. "We look at the individual."

At the other end, employers can tap into financial incentives offered by the state and federal government that are designed to support employment efforts in the private sector.

Construction, manufacturing, landscaping and grounds maintenance are industries that are willing to work with former prisoners, says Michelle Socha, business liaison for Michigan Works! in Traverse City, the agency that works directly with both parolees and employers.

An intermediate step for many newly-released prisoners is Traverse City-based Grand Traverse Industries where they pick up job skills and temporary employment.

"Our piece is to provide a couple weeks of basic work experience and make an assessment at the end," says President Steve Perdue. "It's an entry back into the work world."

Most eligible parolees are in their late 20s and 30s, with many also in the 40-year-old range, Baab says. Fewer than 10 percent are female.

One woman, a former inmate who is referred to as a "poster child" for the employment program, graduated from the Grand Traverse Industries' program and now works there in a supervisory position.

"Like any other population, you're going to have people who have great successes, people who are mediocre workers and some who are terrible workers," said Grand Traverse Industries Vice President for Operations Steven Ovalle. "Don't hire them because you feel bad for them. Hire them because they're the right fit for the job. The advantage for ex-prisoners coming out is they have supports that other workers don't have."

Another former prisoner splits his time between the Omelette Shoppe restaurant and the Great Lakes Culinary Institute at Northwestern Michigan College.

The restaurant's general manager Matt Sivits says that as employers they look at a former prisoner's previous work history as well as criminal record when hiring.

"When you hire, they're grateful to be given a chance and often work harder and stay with you longer."

The program is too new to measure impact in the community, says LeAnn Duran, Office of Offender ReEntry manager for the Michigan Department of Corrections. But local numbers from the first year reflect an employment rate of 83.6 percent, including those in training programs and those who had a job waiting for them when they were paroled, according to Baab.

For more information about the program, contact Michigan Works! at 922-3700. BN