A growing community of re-entry pathways serve current and former incarcerated individuals needing work upon release. Many re-entry programs are run by people who’ve been in the criminal justice system themselves.
“Those closest to the problem are closest to the solution,” said ReConnect Inc. founding director LaVon Stennis-Williams, a former civil rights attorney who served time in federal prison. “You have people like myself coming out of prison no longer waiting for others to remove barriers. There is a network of movements being led by formerly incarcerated individuals taking control of this whole effort to make reentry something more than just talk. We’re developing programs that try to ensure people coming out are successful and don’t go back to prison.”
Some area re-entry programs are formalized, others less so. Several are grantees through the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services’ administered Vocational and Life Skills grant stemming from 2014 state prison legislation (LB 907). Programs work with individuals inside and outside state prisons.
ReConnect provide services Stennis-Williams didn’t find upon her own release in 2010.
“When I came out of prison, many second chance programs started under the 2008 Second Chance initiative either did not get refunded or the funding dried up,” she said. “So when I came out there weren’t many out there – just kind of the residuals.”
What there were, she said, were disjointed and uncoordinated.
“I wanted to create a program I wish would have been in existence when I was navigating re-entry. What I realized from my own personal experience – it did not matter how well educated you were, how much money you had, what connections you had, when you’re going through re-entry, you’re going to face barriers. I developed a program to fill service gaps and to be not so much a hand-out as an empowering thing to help overcome those barriers.”
Employment assistance is a major piece of ReConnect.
“We look beyond just helping them with creating a resume and building interview skills. We spoke with employers to find out what soft skills they’re looking for in people. In our employment readiness program Ready for Work we put a lot of emphasis on those core competencies employers want: dependable, reliable, strong work ethic, problem solvers.”
ReConnect’s Construction Toolbox Credentials Training
workshops prepare participants for real jobs.
“We worked with construction companies to find out what they’re looking for in people and we developed a training program using industry professionals to come teach it. They issue industry recognized certificates.”
Metropolitan Community College has convened around re-entry for more than a decade. Today, it’s a sanctioned service provider with 180 Re-entry Assistance Program.
“The thing we constantly hear from employers is that the pool of potential employees they’re fishing in do not have employability skills,” said director Diane Good-Collins, who did a stretch in state prison. “They don’t know how to show up on time, how to communicate with their supervisor, how to be a team player. Those are the things we’re teaching clients while they’re still incarcerated, so when they come out of prison they’re on a level playing field with those without criminal histories they’re competing against for jobs.”
Programs like 180 and ReConnect build background friendly employer pipelines.
“We work now with over 80 employers,” said Stennis-Williams at ReConnect, Inc. “These employers are very receptive to hiring men and women who participate in our job readiness workshops. I think employers’ attitudes are changing, partly because of economics. Employers are realizing they cannot ignore this labor force anymore.
“That’s why I think they’re making an effort now to reach out to programs like ours.”
Metro’s 180 program sees a similar shift.
“We have worked hard talking to employers about the population and helping destigmatize them. Employers understand this is the hidden workforce. Individuals are coming out trained, ready to enter the workforce and have the support of MCC and others in the community as they transition. They are ready to do something different and really what they need is an opportunity,” said Good-Collins. “Statistics show those who get educated while incarcerated are many times less likely to go back to prison.”
Good-Collins said MCC closely vets participants.
“We’re not just going to send employers 10 people we don’t know anything about. We prescreen them to make sure they’re ready to be a part of their organization.”
Despite rigorous standards and numerous success stories, she said, not all employers want in.
“Some of the barriers are nonnegotiable. Some employers say they absolutely will never hire somebody with a criminal history. Some companies are limited to who they can hire due to liability concerns. Some have no idea they aren’t willing to until we talk to them about it. People with particular criminal histories can’t get hired in certain jobs.”
Good-Collins found a receptive audience at a Human Resources Association of the Midlands diversity forum she presented at in October.
“Several HR directors said they’d be willing to work with us and we’ve established relationships with their companies. I feel like the proverbial door was kicked open and destigmatizing took place.”
Metro’s credit offerings inside prison include business, entrepreneurship, trades and information technology.
“We chose to teach those four career pathways inside the correctional facilities because those are areas the population can find a job in when released.
“Employability Skills and Introduction to Micro-computer Technology are our foundation courses because they give you a foot in the door with an employer.”
Process and Power Operations is a manufacturing and distribution certification course. Upon completion, she said, “its national certification equals gainful employment upon release,” adding, “We’ve worked with guys who got this and are making very good money.”
“Manufacturing and construction are popular career fields and well-paying options,” she said. “With our forklift training, you can get a job almost immediately at one of our employer partners. Other graduates work in food service – entry level to management level.”
More re-entry efforts that focus around employment readiness include Intro To The Trades and Urban Pre-Vocational Training programs offered by Black Men United.
Big Mama’s Restaurant and Catering owner Patricia Barron has a long history hiring wait and kitchen staff with criminal histories.
Comprehensive programs like Metro’s 180 and ReConnect offer wrap-around services to clients, including transition support, referral to community agencies, coaching-tutoring-mentoring and employment assistance.
“We serve as a liaison in case there’s an issue that comes up at work and if the employee has a barrier with transportation or child care,” Good-Collins said. “We basically stand as a support and advocate.
“If they’re not at a point in their education and training to be eligible to go into a career position, then we guide them to survival employment, so at least they get working. Meanwhile, they can pursue their educational-employment goal to get to where they want to.”
Teela Mickles has worked with returning citizens for three decades. Her Compassion in Action seeks to “embrace the person, rebuild the family and break the cycle of negativity and recidivism.” CIA’s Pre-Release-Education-Reentry Preparation focuses on the individual and the unresolved core issues that led to criminal acts.
Personal validation, self-exploration and personal development activities help clients change their thinking and behaviors, said Mickles. “This allows each individual to succeed in other services offered to this population: drug rehabilitation, advance education, employment readiness and gainful employment.”
CIA, ReConnect, 180 and other programs refer clients to mental or behavioral health counseling as needed.
There’s also a prevention aspect to re-entry work. Adult clients with kids learn parenting skills and strategies that can help keep their children from entering the system. ReConnect and CIA both have youth and family components.
Jasmine Harris is Post-Release Program manager for the area’s latest re-entry player: Defy Ventures, a national organization with regional chapters. its intensive six-month CEO of Your New Life program explores character development, transformational education and employment readiness. Participants learn to transition their street hustle experiences, talents and skills into career applications. Clients develop a life plan.
“Getting them to see that skill set and how to use it on the positive side of things really turns on a light for them and they love it,” Harris said. “We bring in volunteers for business coaching days. The entrepreneurship part is the hallmark of our program. We call our participants EITs or Entrepreneurs in Training. They get one-on-one basic entrepreneurship.”
Volunteers assist clients in developing a business plan.
“Our curriculum is vetted by Baylor University,” Harris said. “and if participants pass they get a certificate of career readiness. We do a full cap and gown graduation. That’s when we have our business pitch competition. We bring in volunteers, business execs, entrepreneurs and do a shark tank style competition. Everyone graduating pitches their business idea.”
Cash prizes are awarded.
In terms of post-release, Harris deploys the same six month program on the outside that’s offered in prison.
“Anyone in the community with a criminal history, whether they were formaly incarcerated or had a misdemeanor or a felony probation, can participate if they’re looking for another option.”
Harris also runs the program’s business incubator.
“Our Entrepreneur Incubator is an additional 12 to 15 months of training. We match clients up with executive mentors who’ve gone through the process of starting their own business. Mentors help walk them through the business start-up process.
“We have business coaching nights and workshops where we bring in subject matter experts who give more in-depth information.”
Harris connects clients with workforce development resources, help with resumes and two big barriers – affordable housing and access to transportation.
“We connect them to services in the community where it makes sense. Everybody doesn’t want to be an entrepreneur or go to school. We let them know there’s a program over here doing a trades piece or there’s another program doing the education piece.”
Re-entry experts agree there are more and better services today but Harris and others see a need for more collaboration among providers.
Good-Collins said no matter how one feels about reentering citizens, they’re here to stay.
“Maybe you can look at it from a dollars and cents perspective and realize it doesn’t make fiscal sense to do what we’ve been doing, which is paying to re-incarcerate people.”
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.