Depending on the statistics used and year analyzed, the United States has some 20 percent of the world’s known prison population and less than 5 percent of the total population. And the recidivism rate for men and women unfortunately is high, including in Shelby County.
There are a number of organizations that work to reduce that rate, providing a range of life and job training to help keep men and women from returning to incarceration. HopeWorks Inc. and Economic Opportunities (EcOp) are just two of those organizations working to provide the stability that comes with employment.
“A lot of people have something in their background that can haunt them and we don’t think that’s fair,” said Bob Brame, program coordinator of training for Economic Opportunities. “Slowly but surely more and more employers are embracing the reality that people who have paid the price, their debt to society, are in good standing with the criminal justice system, they make better employees in many cases than somebody who has had only a speeding ticket.”
A clear path to reducing the recidivism rate is through meaningful employment.
“One thing we do is if we can help someone get a job we’re contributing to reducing that number,” said Ron Wade, executive director of HopeWorks. “One of the issues we’ve found is it’s easier to get a job than keep a job.”
HopeWorks started in 1988 when Memphis area Churches of Christ sought a way to provide care for the poor and homeless of the community. As the name states, the basic idea of the faith-based nonprofit organization is to provide hope and a job.
“The hope piece, we’re faith based so we try to help people believe in themselves and get a closer relationship with God,” Wade said. “We feel our students help us get that as well. … On the job side we try to remove barriers from people who want to work.”
Those barriers include the lack of a high school diploma. HopeWorks has an aggressive adult education component that provides adult education for high school dropouts across West Tennessee.
Another barrier is having a criminal background. To be clear, HopeWorks isn’t just focused on individuals who have been incarcerated. But there is a real need to help people with a criminal background.
“That criminal background is a real deal-breaker for most employers,” Wade said. “They do a background check and compare to an individual who doesn’t have a background, and unless there is a relationship or a real commitment on the employer side, they don’t get hired. Then it’s a snowball effect. They oftentimes return to jail. They need to make a living for their families. A guy once said to me, ‘Ron, I know the difference between right and wrong. But I need to make a living for my family and I know crime.”
HopeWorks’ personal and career development classes are 13 weeks and students attend five days a week from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. where they learn soft skills, career selection, computer work and on-the-job training based on a chosen career path. Mentors and counseling are provided.
The program costs $3,000 per student to operate, although participants don’t pay anything to go through it. There are three requirements for students to remain in the program: good attendance, pass random drug tests and motivation.
“You can’t come to class and act like you don’t want to be there,” Wade said. “So we lose about 35 to 40 percent of the people that start the program. But those that graduate – and we’ve had over 1,000 graduate – we can tell employers we have someone with good attendance, drug free and motivated with over 300 hours of experience and they should hire from us instead of off the street.”
HopeWorks has a component in its program to work with its graduates and employers to make sure its alumni stay on track and don’t lose a job. It also does training with employers to improve the turnover rate.
Everyone is welcome to participate at HopeWorks, but participants must be able to read at a sixth grade level because of the curriculum students go through.
At Economic Opportunities, the mission is to help individuals with criminal histories re-enter society. It began in 1991 out of the vision to create an intensive care unit for those individuals beyond what the Memphis Leadership Foundation’s job readiness program could do. EcOp equips ex-offenders with knowledge, skills and resources necessary to obtain employment.
EcOp uses a holistic approach to transform the participants’ mindset and promote behaviors based on Biblical principles. That work is accomplished through job readiness training and on-the-job training in step with employer and community partners.
EcOp works to eliminate barriers to employment, whether it’s lack of a driver’s license or fines and fees still owed.
The program started with participants working manual labor jobs, including pallet building and landscaping. The opportunities were meant to give real work experience.
To participate in EcOp’s program individuals must be 18, if on parole must be in good standing and already need a high school diploma or GED. Students are drug tested. The classes usually have about 25 people at a time, and are offered four to six times a year. The goal is that when they come out of class, they are ready for employment.
Individuals are selected from the class based on their needs, goals and experiences to participate in the on-the-job training program, which is with long-time partner Barnhart Crane & Rigging. That’s where EcOp’s “employees” work for anywhere from six months to a year.
It’s a model that could be duplicated with other companies that are interested, said EcOp Executive Director Ernie Hilliard. The model must start with the acknowledgement that participants are being asked to work in an environment that’s foreign and uncomfortable.
“We have to find a way to help them become integrated or master a life condition that they are not used to,” Hilliard said. “Some have never had work experience but all of them have been institutionalized and developed institutionalized behavior. How do you take someone that has been in a controlled environment and put them in a not controlled environment that’s run by different norms and then expect them to be managed and supervised in a different way? The difficulty has been when it’s tried in a traditional way people have crashed and burned. Cultures clash, different values and perspectives.”
EcOp’s method has a project supervisor who has gone through the program. It’s someone who can connect with the men and women in a way that helps them navigate the different behavioral expectations.
Hilliard understands employers might not want to go through the perceived trouble of employing ex-offenders. But he believes individuals with a record become the best employees.
“They know they don’t have the opportunity to screw up so they try harder and work harder and are more committed,” he said.
The program is free for participants, which means EcOp always needs funding to make it work. The organization receives funding from a number of local foundations and has several church partners.
“We’re still looking to build a reservoir of partners willing to join hands with us financially and spiritually with this population and help us with this movement,” Hilliard said. “It’s growing into a movement and away from just a program.”
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