Prison: A life sentence to joblessness?

Without new policies, states will continue to flood the streets with people who have been rendered essentially unemployable by their prison record. But smart changes can help create stronger local economies.

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Washington state's Monroe Correctional Complex

Without new policies, states will continue to flood the streets with people who have been rendered essentially unemployable by their prison record. But smart changes can help create stronger local economies.

Each year, America spends about $68 billion to incarcerate and supervise more than 7 million people. Yet criminologists say our burgeoning penal system, which has tripled in size over the past 25 years, does little to improve public safety. What it has been most successful at is promoting poverty.

The lives of young inmates are shaped by a lack of public policy on re-entry. With the highest incarceration rate in the world, the U.S. releases more than 700,000 inmates each year, almost all of them barred from solid jobs because of their crimes.

John Page knows this through bitter experience. A drug addiction and subsequent crimes led to eight years in a Seattle-area prison. Afterward, though welcomed home by friends, and sober, he found himself permanently marked by his past. Despite a college education, solid office experience, and a lifelong ability to connect with people, Page, 46, discovered that the only work he could get upon release was an $8-per-hour job cleaning buses at night.

"I'd had all these expectations," he said. "I was aiming for jobs with the city, jobs with the county." No employer would give him a second look.

"It was horrible," he said.

Even now, four years later, Page still feels the chill of incarceration. He winces to recall the day he was invited to meet the managers at a Seattle utility company. His preliminary tests had so impressed Human Resources that a job seemed assured, company staff said. Dressed for the interview, Page arrived to fill out the paperwork — checking "yes" when asked whether he had any criminal history. Immediately, the smiles and first-name familiarity vanished, as did the $35,000-a-year position. Page was left to cobble together a living through part-time contract work.

"It really hurt," he said. "Yes, I was in prison, but that wasn't all of my experience."

A dignified man whose face sags at the memory of his addiction and subsequent crimes, Page has since rebuilt his life, working in the last four years at a car dealership, communications firm, and civil rights organization. He recently found a new job as a program coordinator with Seattle'ꀙs Defender Association — his first full-time job with benefits since the 1990s.

Moving up from the low-income apartment that has been his home since release is Page's next goal. But he stalls, paralyzed by the idea of filling out a rental application.

"You go into a leasing office and tell them, 'Yes, I have some stuff in my background, some robberies.' They take your $35 application fee and then say they can't take you in,'ꀝ he said. "I don't want the anxiety."

Many believe this is just as it should be: Break the law and you must pay.

Unemployment was not what inmates from the Black Prisoners Caucus planned to discuss when they gathered recently for their weekly meeting at the Monroe Correctional Complex. A community group, the Village of Hope, had brought Page, along with a dozen Seattle officials, to hear from inmates about the ways failure to connect with education had contributed to the trajectory of their lives.

But few were prepared to grapple with the reality looming ahead: the barriers to employment and housing that would surely shape their futures — and those of the other 8,000 other inmates released in Washington each year.

"There's got to be some setup where we can help kids when we get out — not just work at McDonald's or whatever," said 25-year-old Edward Howard, locked up since adolescence for robbery. No, education had not worked for him, Howard said, but there must be a way he could use his life's hard lessons to help someone else.

Around the circle, inmates were nodding in agreement. They, too, wanted to counsel young people. Page broke in: Working with kids was fine, but had anyone considered what it would take just getting on their feet outside the prison walls?

"The barriers to getting a job are not even in the conversation about re-entry," he said, recalling the hard reality of wiping down buses for minimum wage, turning over most of his earnings to a halfway house and, as a result, being unable to save a dime. "At least no one ever talked to me about that."

The inmates fell silent.

For all their good intentions, it is people like Edward Howard — young, idealistic, and unprepared — that most worry Mary Flowers, who cofounded the Village of Hope, in part to keep prison inmates connected with their home communities.

"What's really typical is a 22- or 23-year-old getting released and they probably have not graduated from high school, their maturity has not kicked in, and they have no work experience," she said. "I'm real, real concerned with the younger ones coming out and the bleak reality that they're facing."

The issue of prisoner re-entry has stymied Washington state for years, exploding onto front pages in 2007, after two Seattle police officers and a sheriff'ꀙs deputy were killed by felons purportedly under state supervision. Outcry over those deaths resulted in $25 million promised for post-prison transition programs.

Nationally, the time was ripe. As states confronted fiscal recession and drastically shrinking budgets, new research suggested that locking up more people for longer periods was doing nothing to curb crime and — through ever-worsening recidivism rates — might even be costing money in the long run. (In Washington, nearly 40 percent of inmates reoffend and return to prison within five years, each one costing taxpayers $76 per day.)

"The current budget crisis presents states with an important, perhaps unprecedented opportunity," said a report from public safety experts at the Pew Center on the States. "If we had stronger community corrections, we wouldn'ꀙt need to lock up so many people at such great cost." They added: "We are well past the point of diminishing returns, where more imprisonment will prevent less and less crime."

Yet Washington state reacted by slashing 256 positions in community corrections, releasing 10,000 felons from oversight and quashing plans for beefed-up programs that would help them transition into society. A patchwork of volunteer efforts and inmate word-of-mouth now constitutes the job-referral system for offenders approaching release, many of whom are freed without substantive preparation for re-joining a society that is vastly different — economically and technologically — from the one they left.

"It surprises me that we don't hold Department of Corrections accountable for recidivism — especially with the $30,000 a year that it costs to lock people up," Page said. "We're not getting any return on that investment. So we've got to decide, when people come out can they only clean buses, clean toilets? We've got to be real about what it costs to live out here."

Patricia Watkins, of the Target Area Development Corporation in Chicago, has spent six years pushing for criminal justice reform in Illinois. Faced with similar difficulties, Illinois — under pressure from community and business groups — has taken a dramatically different approach.

"The more we arrested people, the more they returned to our communities with less resources than they had when they left," said Patricia Watkins, among those leading the prison reform movement as executive director of Chicago's Target Area Development Corp. "They had so many doors shut in their faces that they couldn't re-enter."

Over the past six years, Target Area has successfully pushed the Illinois legislature to create rehabilitation prisons, where inmates with drug convictions are prepared to reintegrate into society from the day they arrive. All state prisons now have full-fledged job development programs, and the records of ex-offenders are sealed after three years crime-free so that they may more easily return to work.

Already, recidivism in Illinois is down — about 3 percent overall between 2003 and 2009. Among graduates of the drug rehabilitation prisons, however, recidivism has dropped by 40 percent and saved state taxpayers an estimated $64 million. Back in 2004, none of these policy changes were an easy sell.

"The downstate, rural communities — they benefit from more people going to prison," said Watkins, noting that the bulk of Illinois penitentiaries are sited outside of Chicago. "For them, it means jobs — more money for schools, more money for housing. So when we'd push these policies, they always fought us. They'd say, 'Send us your felons!' "

"We've said to business owners, 'If we want to make this a vibrant, competitive, global city, the criminal justice policies in this state are mitigating against that.' We've got this platinum revolving door where we're spending huge amounts of money incarcerating people, letting them out, putting them back in prison and starting all over again. Paula Wolff, Chicago Metropolis 2020

To combat that, Watkins employed a simple strategy: People were reluctant to discuss the moral implications of imprisoning thousands of black men, so she focused only on the cold, hard costs: Illinois locks up about 40,000 people each year and releases another 40,000 — half of whom are behind bars again in three years. For those results, taxpayers were shelling out more than $1 billion annually.

No one understood those numbers like the business community and, there, Watkins found an ally.

"If you took everybody under the jurisdiction of our DOC — it's about 245,000 people — it would be the second largest city in Illinois," said Paula Wolff, a former advisor to the governor, who joined forces with Watkins as a leader of the nonpartisan, business-backed group Chicago Metropolis 2020.

"We've said to business owners, 'If we want to make this a vibrant, competitive, global city, the criminal justice policies in this state are mitigating against that.' We've got this platinum revolving door where we're spending huge amounts of money incarcerating people, letting them out, putting them back in prison and starting all over again. It was, to me, the most screwed-up system in the state."

As an example, Wolff pointed to this basic conundrum: Prison inmates often learn haircutting as a trade, practicing on one another. But a felony conviction makes them ineligible for a barber's license upon release. (Barbering is one of 57 professions in Illinois not open to anyone who has done time.) The result? A growing segment of the population — former inmates — is essentially unemployable.

With Wolff and the business community on board, Watkins moved ahead and, slowly, state policies began to change.

"There was no other recourse for us," she said. "Otherwise, we'd just allow our communities to be flooded every year with new ex-offenders joining the millions already there so we had to do something. We had to change some laws."

This story appeared originally on Equal Voice, an online paper published by the Marguerite Casey Foundation. Reprinted with permission.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Claudia Rowe

Claudia Rowe

Claudia Rowe is a journalist and author of two books: The Spider and the Fly, which won the 2018 Washington State Book Award for Memoir, and Time Out, which looks at juvenile justice through the case of a seventh grader in Seattle. She is working on a new book about foster care. She is also the Editor at Clyde Hill Publishing. Her writing for Crosscut focuses on juvenile justice, foster care, and public education.