By Katherin Nelson
The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, according to Prisonpolicy.org. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that in 2016, there were almost 2.2 million offenders in confinement. That’s a population greater than many of the largest U.S. metropolitan cities, including Dallas and San Diego. For those who are released, finding stable employment is crucial to rehabilitation. But a criminal record can impose challenges like limited employment opportunities and preparedness, making the task of entering the workforce an uphill climb.
“My biggest challenge getting a job after I got out was not having the education that I should,” says Andria Atwood, who was first incarcerated at the age of 19. “It’s hard to go into places and take a chance on getting rejected. I just settled at the lower end of the totem pole.”
Many of the jobs available to offenders are low-paying, making it difficult not to turn to illegal sources of income.
Nick Ward, a shift leader at Orange Street Community Corrections Center, a halfway house on Salt Lake City’s west side, says, “The hardest part that we are running into now is that a lot of the jobs that our residents get are not a high enough living wage for them to transition out of here.”
Crasaun Johnson spent years in and out of prison before he found an employer that paid a living wage who would take a chance on him.
“I was walking a mile at 3:00 a.m. every morning to take the train to this job that didn’t even have enough hours for me and was also compromising my job search time, so I was going nowhere,” he said. “I wasn’t ready, and I ran from probation.”
Although finding suitable employment is difficult, Ward says, it remains the most important part of successful reentry into the community.
“Stable employment lowers the risk of reoffending drastically. It’s one of the biggest factors as far as criminogenic needs,” he said.
The dichotomy between the freedom of the outside world and the staggering amount of structure of a halfway house can be daunting to those reentering the community. Both Johnson and Atwood weren’t able to complete their first program at a halfway house before being sent back to prison.
“The first time I went to a halfway house, it was overwhelming, and I ran. There is so much structure and stress. But, it’s been good for me this time,” Atwood said.
However, staff at Orange Street believe that the structure at halfway houses is designed to provide the support needed for offenders to reach their goals. Spencer Turley, regional administrator at Orange Street, said, “Our number one focus as an agency is successful felon reentry … it reduces recidivism and increases public safety.”
The structure, combined with community resources Orange Street connects their residents to, provides a path for offenders to transition into hard-working contributors to the community.
Although Ward says some employers won’t hire felons at all, he repeatedly has companies requesting more applicants from Orange Street because they provide such quality employees.
“I got an email from the owner of a bakery that said, ‘I currently have one of your offenders that works for me and he’s the best employee I’ve ever had. Can you send me another one?’” Turley said.
Amanda Kloepfer, a general manager at a local transportation company, has hired offenders in the past and believes there are benefits. In her experience, offenders have worked diligently, she believes, because they’ve been given a chance that can be hard to come by.
“She actually progressed faster than any of our other employees because I felt like she wanted to prove herself,” said Kloepfer of an offender she employed. “She worked her way up, and within a year of her employment, she became a lead for her team because of her work ethic and dedication.”
Although Kloepfer’s decision to hire an offender is made on a case-by-case basis, she says she wouldn’t hold it against someone if they did have a felony.
The opinions on the availability and effectiveness of training programs differ from the staff at Orange Street and the offenders interviewed.
“In prison they sent me to a class to write a resume and go to a mock interview, but I couldn’t go to the classes I needed to get skills to get the jobs,” says Johnson.
But Liam Truchard, information specialist at Utah Department of Corrections says, “Davis Technical College teaches a number of courses and programs for men and women. Anything from machine work, to welding, to a women’s program for cable installation … a lot of these guys come out ready to go with 1200-hour certificates.”
However, the level of commitment and dedication required by the offenders is something upon which both groups agree. Since her release, Atwood has is completing a yoga teacher training in May, hopes to teach yoga at recovery centers, and is focusing on “continuing a normal life.” As for Johnson, he consistently works over 40 hours a week as a cement truck delivery driver. He is also preparing to return to school to study law in order to make a positive impact on those who may endure experiences similar to his own. Although he took correspondence courses while in prison and earned a paralegal diploma, he was unable to put those skills to use after incarceration because of restrictions put on felons.
There are various community programs designed to provide assistance and support to offenders, such as Utah Support Advocates for Recovery Awareness — for substance abuse support, Journey of Hope – for housing resources, Department of Workforce Services — for employment resources, and Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) — for education assistance.
To offenders struggling to find employment, Ward says, “Be honest about your past and about where you want to be, and you’ll get people will take a chance on you. People get off probation and parole successfully every day. It will happen; you just have to work at it.”
And, for employers interested in providing the opportunity every offender needs, information can be found on the Utah Department of Corrections website. Corrections.utah.gov references federal tax incentives of $2,500 per employee and protections against employee theft or dishonesty ranging from $5,000 to $25,000.
Orange Street staff hopes that employers will join them in their mission to support successful reentry to those that have been incarcerated.
Turley says, “Offenders are absolutely worth a chance because so many of them have goals and aspirations. … When they get the chance, they take it and run, and they’re unbelievably good employees.”