The Denver Post
Ron Sena still hasn't found a job. He's the ex-con who worked for more than a decade, but was laid off and so learned no matter how long he'd been out, his felony record still hangs over his head.
The column triggered an avalanche of calls and letters from ex-cons in similar situations. One reader, still behind bars, writes to answer Sena's question. "When is the debt to society repaid?
It also brings a call from Steven Saiz, projects coordinator for The Empowerment Program's prisoner re-entry program. The nonprofit also has been the agency that distributes federal grant money to other local prisoner re-entry programs.
Come to our meeting, Saiz says, and so, last week I ended up in a room full of people who work with those freshly out of prison. They saw the storm building long ago.
It looks like this: Every month, Colorado's prisons release about 900 inmates on parole. From month to month, another 2,800 inmates are living in halfway houses where they must pay rent and find work to pay that rent.
These two groups jump into the job pool to compete with the thousands of unemployed people who don't have a rap sheet. You know who gets hired. Federal Department of Labor money that helped ex-offenders with job training and work support is disappearing. So, too, is Department of Corrections money for vocational ed and GED classes — the classes that help an inmate find work once released.
"Our education department took a $33 million cut last year," says Katherine Sanguinetti, Colorado Department of Corrections spokeswoman. "Right now, we're trying to recruit volunteers to teach."
Put that all together and there's your storm.
Sympathy is not required. The economic argument wins here. A working ex-con is an ex-con less likely to commit another crime is an ex-con paying taxes instead of costing us ours.
"In the past six years, we served close to 900 people, and 86 percent found work," Saiz tells me. "Only about 10 percent ended up going back to jail. It costs about $33,000 a year to incarcerate someone, so what's that save?"
At least $25 million.
You might think last week's meeting would be heavy on despair. It was not. Nor did it consist of wishful thinking for government funding. It was a full-bore brainstorming session among people who understand, as Garrett Coulter, co-chair of Denver's Road Home Employment subcommittee, put it: "We have to think completely out of the box. It's either do that or die." (If you're wondering why someone representing the homeless is at the table, it's because ex-offenders are or are in danger of becoming homeless.)
The people at the meeting also see what the public does not: They have been the bunker in the storm. "Without us keeping (ex-cons) from being reincarcerated, the community would go to hell in a handbasket," said William Cash , career development coordinator for the Community Reentry Project.
The discussion centered on better education of and outreach to employers about advantages, such as tax credits, in hiring ex-cons. But much was said about greater collaboration and entrepreneurship and enterprises that might look something like Bud's Warehouse.
The home-improvement thrift store sits adjacent to Interstate 70 just east of Colorado Boulevard. I'd never been before, but I'll be going back because unbelievable deals are to be had on new sinks, doors, windows, lighting, cabinetry, appliances. All of the inventory is donated and most of it is new. Most of the staff live in halfway houses. They work at the warehouse, run by the nonprofit Belay Enterprises, for six months, earning $8 to $10 an hour. More than 80 percent of those who stay for six months find other work. Bud's has spun off several viable businesses, including Good Neighbor's Garage and Baby Bud's/Freedom Cleaning Company
But it can't offer near enough jobs to meet demand.
"It's heartbreaking, really," says Jim Reiner, executive director of Belay Enterprises. "The No. 1 factor that determines whether ex-offenders will go back to jail is whether they have a job. Many employers aren't willing to be a felon's first employer, but they are willing to be the second. So, we're the first."
I'll leave you with Patrick Stewart, an ex-con working at New Beginnings, Bud's custom woodworking shop. Stewart is 33 and has been out nine years. He'd never built anything before, he tells me. Now he's making beautiful cabinets and wine racks. He's gone from prison to welfare to work. "At one point in my life, I was just empty flesh walking around," he tells me. "Now, I have confidence. Now, I actually have hope."
Creative thinking is required. The money is drying up. Saiz's prisoner re-entry program is being shuttered. His last day of work is Feb. 29.
Who is the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition?
Our chief areas of interest include drug policy reform, women in prison, racial injustice, the impact of incarceration on children and families, the problems associated with re-entry and stopping the practice of using private prisons in our state.
If you would like to be involved please go to our website and become a member.
Sunday, February 05, 2012
The Denver Post