December 13, 2002
From Jail Cell to the Job Market
elfare-to-work programs have moved thousands of women from welfare into jobs, and now many conservative groups that championed those programs are trying to apply them to another problematic population: the hundreds of thousands of men who are released from prisons each year.
The organizations, run by religious conservatives and crime-fighting conservatives, believe that the welfare-to-work model — a mix of tough love and true training — may reduce recidivism and move many of the roughly 550,000 men released from prison each year nationwide into meaningful employment.
In fact, these conservative efforts are part of an emerging and rare consensus to work with a population that has long been the focus of liberal groups.
"The 600,000 prisoners released each year, if not the biggest problem on the social agenda, has to be in the top five," said William B. Eimicke, a Columbia University professor of management, who recently completed a study of job programs for ex-offenders for the conservative Manhattan Institute. "Rehabilitation for criminals was originally viewed as more of a liberal issue. But moderates and even right-wing conservatives can embrace it, too, because it has a very strong self-help theme, it will contribute to the economy and perhaps most importantly it has the potential to save taxpayers a lot of money."
Over the past year, America Works, a Manhattan-based company, has used its welfare-to-work model to place more than 300 former prisoners in jobs. Eager to strengthen ties between incarcerated fathers and their children, several religious conservatives have created job training programs for ex-offenders.
In New York City, two Republican mayors — Rudolph W. Giuliani and Michael R. Bloomberg — have awarded record amounts of money for job programs for former prisoners. John J. DiIulio Jr., a Democrat who was the director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in the current Bush White House, is pressing Congress for a tenfold increase in spending on job programs for ex-offenders.
Former prisoners are attracting more attention partly because a record number of them are being released, about 1,600 a day, a direct result of the national prison population's climbing to a record in recent years, nearly two million.
One statistic has especially pressed conservatives and liberals alike to assist this group: nearly two-thirds of ex-offenders are arrested again within three years of release, meaning they committed hundreds of thousands of new crimes.
"Although the number of studies is limited, it has become clear that training ex-offenders and placing them in jobs is an important way to keep these people from going back to prison," said Jeremy Travis, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute.
On a recent Monday, a dozen newly released prisoners, all men, headed to the 12th-floor Manhattan office of America Works to ask for job-hunting leads and to attend a three-day workshop.
Juan Cortez, who runs the workshops, tells the ex-offenders not to lie when interviewers ask whether they served time. Rather, he tells them to minimize their violations. Instead of saying they were convicted on drug charges, he advises, they should say that they were involved in a situation where controlled substances were present and that they have done everything to put it behind them.
At the workshop, Mr. Cortez, who obtained a bachelor's degree and two master's while in jail on a gang-related manslaughter conviction, urged the former felons to think several years ahead. He asked Raymond, who had served 12 years on drug charges, "What do you see yourself doing in two, three years, remembering that you're young and have a lot of potential? And remember, you have a wife and the most important thing in the world, a young kid."
Raymond responded, "I want to own a business, be a successful businessman." For the short term, Raymond said, he wants a janitorial or warehouse job, prompting Mr. Cortez to talk inspiringly about two former prisoners who at first took janitorial jobs and now run a floor-buffing company that employs 16 people.
America Works places ex-offenders in janitorial jobs as well as in light-industrial, restaurant and telemarketing jobs. Company officials note that many fast-talking ex-offenders excel at telemarketing. To many companies, these workers are not threatening; 75 percent of ex-offenders were not in prison for violent crimes and one-third were in for drug offenses, up from 11 percent in 1985.
Nonetheless, job-placement efforts face considerable barriers, among them fears of former prisoners and laws barring ex-offenders from various occupations.
Still, Sheldon Flatow, whose company in Queens makes air-conditioning ducts, said he was delighted with the three former prisoners he had hired. "They're excellent employees," he said. "They do whatever I ask. My experience has been so positive, I don't see why anyone wouldn't do it."
Professor Eimicke's study found that of 891 ex-offenders who signed up for the three-day workshop at America Works, 501 finished it and 389 were placed in jobs. Of those 42 percent kept their jobs for at least six months.
Noting that New York State spends about $30,000 a year to keep someone in prison, his study concluded that such job-placement programs could save the state millions of dollars a year by reducing recidivism, the rate at which ex-convicts return to prison, and thus cutting prison costs.
"One unintended consequence of the welfare-to-work program was it empowered women while a lot of men disappeared and went to jail," said Lee Bowes, chief executive of America Works, which runs one of the nation's most successful welfare-to-work programs. "Now we're trying to do something to help the men."
Jorge N., who served two years for drug possession, complained that he had no luck finding a job on his own when he was released last April. Frustrated, he went to America Works on a friend's advice, and it directed him to a toy factory in Queens.
Jorge now earns $7.50 an hour at the factory, doing shipping, receiving, stocking and unloading. "It's very important for me that I can help support my 13-year-old daughter," he said.
Elizabeth Gaynes, executive director of the Osborne Association, a New York nonprofit agency that was a pioneer in assisting ex-offenders, said prisons did a bad job preparing inmates for work.
"Prison is probably the single worst place in the world to prepare people to succeed at a job," she said. "All the things that make someone a good worker — initiative, being careful, trying to go the extra mile — prison discourages."
Like the Osborne Association, the Center for Employment Opportunities, in Manhattan, takes ex-offenders to drug programs, implores judges to ease child support payments and asks parole officers to change appointments so they do not conflict with a parolee's work hours.
"These guys are coming home with an incredible number of obligations," said Mindy Tarlow, the center's executive director. "They need to report to parole officers and get drug tests. They have curfews. They can't go to certain neighborhoods."
Having served 39 months for bank fraud, Bernard Rutledge said job programs had opened doors for him. For three months, he has, with the help of the Osborne Association, worked for a restaurant supply company in Queens. He is proud that he just received health insurance and a 50-cent raise to $7 an hour.
"I used to be young and full of myself," he said. "My wife, she made me see that there were other things than fast money."
Criminal justice experts say today's ex-offenders are generally less prepared for the job market than prisoners in decades past because they served longer sentences on average and many states emphasized building prisons in the 1990's and spent less on educational and vocational programs for inmates. One study found that recidivism is 20 percent lower for prisoners who participated in vocational programs while in prison.
One religious group that embraced the cause of former prisoners is the Institute for Responsible Fatherhood and Family Revitalization, which has job programs in New York and eight other states. After the institute placed several dozen former Rikers Island inmates in jobs, New York City's Human Resources Administration gave it a five-year contract to train and place at least 200 ex-offenders a year.
Mr. DiIulio, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has begun championing the cause of ex-offenders, saying that aiding them will give crucial help to their children and communities.
"The moment has arrived where people right, left and center recognize we have a practical opportunity and moral obligation to do much more with this population of men," he said. "It's not that these men are victims and therefore we had better give them this. They've paid their debt to society. They're coming out. We have the resources. We can do more and better by these men and by their children and their families. That's where the consensus has come."