Work after prison: hiring ex-inmates has its risks, but many make good, stable, hard-working employees and there are tax breaks to employers.
"From many years of working with offenders, I can tell you that when they finally receive a legitimate job offer, they are so excited. They are just so thrilled," said Sarah Williams, program coordinator for the Alaska Department of Corrections.
Ex-offenders can be hard working and loyal employees, Williams said. "These are people who are used to working for 50 cents or 60 cents an hour, and working with difficult people. They have more to prove, more at stake. Ex offenders can be very, very good employees."
Although they've spent time incarcerated, former inmates generally are released from prison with a detailed work history, training and even professional certifications.
As a cornerstone of the rehabilitative process, sentenced inmates are given an opportunity to receive job training and to hold down a job inside the correctional center where they've been sent to serve their sentence, said R.C. Fisher, education coordinator at Hiland Mountain-Meadow Creek Correctional centers in Eagle River.
"Many inmates come into our facilities with no job skills, so it's important to prepare them mentally, to provide them with 'soft skills' needed to find and keep a job," Fisher said.
THAT FIRST JOB
"First and foremost, many inmates have never held a job. So one of the biggest things they can learn is the work ethic ... getting up on time, showing up ready to work. That's the biggest thing," said Dawn Mattson, coordinator of the department's correctional industries program.
Fisher explained 'soft skills' as "for example, getting along with coworkers, time management, budgeting, answering the telephone." In addition, inmates who lack a high school diploma are required to obtain a GED in order to obtain privileges.
While incarcerated, Alaskan inmates are offered job training in areas such as food preparation, building maintenance, construction and computer skills. Each correctional facility has a different set of programs, but most fall within these vocational categories.
To get a prison job, inmates must apply and interview just as they would for a job outside the institution, Mattson explained. "We want to provide the most relevant work experience as possible. Inmates work a 7 1/2-hour day, break for lunch, get merit raises.
"Correctional facilities in Alaska hire inmates as clerks, office work, laundry, woodworking, sewing and materials handling. And these are just some examples," Mattson added.
Prior to release, inmates may be offered job skills classes to learn interview skills and resume writing.
Former inmates can be good employees, said Commissioner Marc Antrim of the Alaska Department of Corrections. "Often inmates will have had plenty of time to learn job skills and obtain training and certification. In addition, many released inmates are on parole or probation, so they have to keep a job in order to meet their requirements."
There are two government incentives--a tax credit and a fidelity-bonding program--which may be available to employers who hire former inmates, said Alan Mackinnon, employment security analyst with the Alaska Department of Labor.
The fidelity bond program is a safety net for an employer who chooses to take a risk in hiring a former inmate to a position that might involve cash handling--bookkeeping or delivery driving, for example. There is no cost to the employer. Typically the bonds are for $5,000 and last six months, although bonds for higher amounts have been granted, Mackinnon explained.
"It allows someone who's made a mistake in the past get back in the door, to become re-employed."
The bond program is available to companies and nonprofits, Mackinnon added.
The low-income employment tax credit is administered jointly by the state and federal government. A low-income employee is certified as such by the state; with that certification an employer can apply a credit on federal taxes, Mackinnon explained.
Many released inmates seek employment as a condition for probation or parole. In other words, they are required to remain employed as a condition of release.
"When most ex-offenders begin working, they are on supervision. They are being monitored, and that can help them be successful employees," Williams said.
"They are under very tight controls. For an employer, the main thing is that you have somebody for whom keeping his or her job is critical. They're not going to blow it off," she said. "Having an employer trust you is sometimes a little bit new, and it can mean a lot more to someone who's not been trusted for a long time."
Some aspects of prison life can translate into good work habits, Williams explained. "Inmates become very aware of spatial boundaries, and they learn 'to do your own time.' In other words, long-term prisoners let it be known that it is not okay to ask how much time you have left or what you are in on. The message is to stay focused on your own assignment."
Employers should use the interview process to determine whether or not an ex-inmate is a good match for the advertised opening.
"When you ask questions look for an appropriate response. If they get into gruesome details of the crime they committed, that might be a red flag for a position that requires public interaction, while that person might be a go-getter for a night stocking job," Williams explained.
"When interviewing, just get (an ex-inmate) to talk. Don't shy away from the incarceration."
When inmates learn job-hunting skills, they soon figure out that they will have to approach the question "have you ever been convicted of a crime?"
"We encourage them to answer that question with 'Please ask during the interview.' Inmates want a chance to present themselves, and it is an opening for them to be straightforward: 'I did my time for ... During that time, here's what I accomplished,'" Williams said.
Hiland Mountain's Fisher calls this "taking the bars off the resume. I tell inmates, you don't just walk in to an interview, and say 'you know, I'm a felon.' Just tell the truth, and tell the employer what you can offer as an employee."
Ex-inmates may use this opening to explain that they are in recovery from substance abuse and that they have been successful in their sobriety. More than a few employers have battled similar addictions, and this conversation can prove to be a positive connection.
When interviewing an ex-offender, Williams suggests asking these questions:
"What did you do during your incarceration to improve yourself?"
"How will you be valuable as an employee?" And:
"While you held down a job in prison, how did you handle stressful situations?"
"Employers need to keep in mind the fact that prison is a distinct culture. For example, you can watch former long-term inmates soon after they are released; they will stand in front of a door for a few seconds, then realize it is okay for them to open it themselves."
Williams suggests looking for certain responses: "How forthcoming is this person ... do they let you know they are on supervision, and would they welcome you feeling free to contact their parole/probation officer?
"You should look for the appropriateness of their responses," Williams said. "They should be candid without divulging too much.
"When inmates begin to work on job-hunting skills, at first it doesn't occur to them that they have some good things to put on a resume," Williams said.
There is always some risk when hiring an ex-inmate, cautions James Easter, an employment security specialist with the Alaska Department of Labor. "But you can also get some trained, highly skilled people. Sometimes, you just have to give someone a chance."
Fisher makes it his business to offer inmates an opportunity to put their time behind bars to productive use. As inmates get closer to their release date, Fisher stresses the importance of using the state's job centers.
Over time, the Eagle River facility has become a Certified Microsoft Testing and Training center. "We teach Quick Books, MS Office, IC3 computer literacy program and A+ computer repair certification. IC3 isn't easy, and it can lead to MS professional certification," Fisher said. "Hiland Mountain/ Meadow Creek is one of a very few correctional institutions in the country that are certified Microsoft training and testing centers.
"We try to get people who are going to be released soon, and get them on this track. Basically, you have people who, when they are released, are ready to work a help desk," Fisher added.
Besides computer training, Alaska correctional centers offer a wide range of job training opportunities. Correctional industries, for example, operates a commercial laundry and sterile laundry in Juneau, a sewing and garment shop at Hiland Mountain, and a wood furniture fabrication shop at Spring Creek Correctional Center in Seward.
At the Point Mackenzie Correctional Farm, inmates can develop a general range of agricultural and meat-processing skills, from chainsaw safety to sausage making to brush cutting.
At Hiland Mountain/Meadow Creek, inmates are offered certification programs in building trades through NCCER (National Center for Construction Education and Research). "You can get entry-level national certification in plumbing, electrical and carpentry, for example," Fisher said.
At the Palmer Correctional Center, inmates can become certified in handling hazardous materials (HAZWOPER) and cleaning up in confined spaces.
"Offenders can leave Alaska correctional facilities with a very good work history, and I think people forget that," Williams said. "As employees, they have more at stake and they have more to prove."
Richard Schmitz is special assistant to the commissioner for Communications at the Alaska Department of Corrections.
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|Author:||Schmitz, Richard F.|
|Publication:||Alaska Business Monthly|
|Date:||Oct 1, 2005|
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