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Employment upon re-entry: prison-based preparedness leads to community-based success.

On Jan. 2, 2004, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich reopened the Sheridan Correctional Center, a 1,300 bed medium-security facility, as a national model therapeutic prison and re-entry program. The Sheridan model integrates substance abuse treatment with vocational preparedness training and workplace acculturation. Informed by the best treatment and training/placement strategies from across the country, the Illinois Department of Corrections with the Safer Foundation and other service provider staff have crafted a unique research-based approach that is specifically attuned to the treatment needs of Sheridan's inmate population. Sheridan's goal is to offer inmates tools, resources and structured practice of new behaviors so that they will be prepared to manage a drug- and crime-free lifestyle in the community, while developing attachments to the work force and local community. Re-entry programming begins the day the offender arrives at Sheridan where career planning, support networks, accountability and responsible crime-free living are stressed along with recovery from addiction.


Sheridan represents Illinois' efforts to reduce crime and recidivism through proactively addressing the challenges of substance addictions and offender re-entry. The reopening of Sheridan comes at a time when Illinois has 36,000 men and women returning from correctional facilities to their communities. With the state's three-year recidivism rate at the all-time high of 54 percent, this project seeks to offer an innovative approach to reducing recidivism, increasing public safety and improving the cost-effectiveness of taxpayer expenditures.

The DOC selected the Safer Foundation to provide Sheridan inmates with employment readiness and placement services both in prison and in the community. The Safer Foundation is the largest community-based provider of employment services exclusively serving ex-offenders in the country with more than 100,000 job placements since it was established in 1972. Safer has facilities in Chicago, Harvey and Rock Island, Ill., as well as Davenport, Iowa. Its mission is to reduce recidivism by supporting, through a full spectrum of services, the efforts of former offenders to become productive, law-abiding community members. Its programs focus on providing direct, outcome-based services to former offenders, centered on employment acquisition and retention. The Safer Foundation serves more than 7,000 ex-offenders annually through its employment-related services. Safer also works directly with the DOC to administer secured residential transition centers to provide selected offenders the opportunity for transition to the community and employment prior to release. As such, Safer administers two community corrections centers in Chicago (North Lawndale and Crossroads adult transition centers).

A Loyola University study of Illinois recidivism rates in 1999 showed a 56 percent decrease in the recidivism rate among clients Safer placed in employment and a 60 percent reduction in the recidivism rate among those clients who retained employment for 30 days. The U.S. Department of Justice Office of Corrections highlighted the Safer Foundation as a model program for ex-offenders in June 1998, stating that Safer helps ex-offenders not only find good jobs but also develop a mind-set that helps to ensure that they will remain employed and succeed in life.

As a provider of services for the Sheridan initiative, Safer was tasked with designing a job preparedness model program beginning inside the prison with preparedness programming and transitioning to the community with placement supports. Additionally, the DOC selected the Gateway Foundation to provide prison-based therapeutic community drug treatment services and the Treatment Accountability for Safer Communities program to manage the clinical re-entry process for offenders, along with School Board 428 and Illinois Valley Community College to provide educational and vocational training. Sheridan providers were selected based on their experience with best practices and demonstrated success in reducing recidivism in Illinois. Additionally, community-based organizations have been selected to provide housing and substance abuse support upon release.

Safer's Sheridan model provides a broad range of employment readiness services, including aptitude/interest assessments, individualized career preparedness action plans, job preparedness training, vocational training strategies, job shadowing/competency achievement, employment acquisition and retention tools, and job placement and coaching supports.

In its model creation, the Safer Foundation conducted a thorough assessment of the best practice knowledge it gleaned from three decades of service delivery, as well as research from the work force and the corrections field. What follows is a brief overview of Safer's research that informed its creation of the Safer Sheridan model, as well as a description of its model program.


A report by the Urban Institute (1) based on analyses of 400 inmates returning to Chicago found that the majority of returning offenders had significant educational, vocational and employment needs. Less than half (41 percent) had a high school education or higher (i.e., high school diploma, GED or some college) when they entered prison. All but 9 percent of the respondents expressed an interest in furthering their education after release. During their prison stay, the percentage of inmates with the equivalent of a high school education increased significantly from 41 percent to 49 percent.

Studies show that recidivism rates are significantly reduced as educational levels increase. (2) Educational programming participants earn higher wages, have increased family stability and higher work force participation, and thus, contribute to cost-savings for the correctional system. (3) The 1997 Center on Crime, Communities and Culture research brief titled Education as Crime Prevention showed a marked decline in recidivism as educational levels rose above high school level. These studies afford a strong argument for increased education in prisons. However, this research also found that education by itself is not the answer. To be successful, educational programming has to be part of a systematic approach integrating employability, social skills training and other specialized programming. Best practice correctional educational programs have carefully tailored educational programming to the needs and sentence lengths of individuals and have tied the educational programming to vocational and job skills training.

Job Readiness and Placement

Research shows that the way inmates dress, talk and behave, and their lack of work contacts, are their biggest barriers to employment. (4) Such "soft skills" are critical because many incarcerated individuals grow up in poor communities isolated from the informal networks that are critical to finding a job or building a career. (5) Studies show that return rates are significantly reduced through participation in work readiness programs. (6)

Job-search/job-club work readiness programs typically teach disadvantaged individuals how to look for a job, prepare an application or resume, conduct an interview and monitor progress in employer contact. Group job readiness programming provides support and motivation for chronically underemployed populations, and coupled with work force strategies focused on increasing earning levels, is a noteworthy program intervention. Best practice programs draw the individuals into identifying job placement barriers and creating a career readiness plan, assist individuals in ascertaining needed resources, such as child care and transportation, and provide rigorous aftercare/job placement supports.

Vocational Training

The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that 60 percent of today's jobs require skills possessed by only 20 percent of the labor market. According to the skills-mismatch theory, many disadvantaged individuals have trouble in the job market because they lack the basic skills and education that employers require and are not prepared to meet the demands of the workplace. As a result of structural changes in the U.S. economy, more entry-level jobs now require higher skill levels than before. It is also argued that many individuals who grow up in consistently poor neighborhoods, where large numbers of residents are unemployed, may lack knowledge of job opportunities and an understanding of appropriate workplace behavior.

Vocational skills training prepares job seekers for work by developing technical skills in a classroom setting and may be the most effective intervention strategy to reduce recidivism besides educational attainment. A Federal Bureau of Prisons study found a 33 percent drop in recidivism among federal inmates who participated in vocational and apprenticeship training.

Employment Placement Programming

The Safer Foundation's job placement model is recognized as a best practice model by national foundations and organizations such as The Annie E. Casey Foundation (which helps disadvantaged children and their families), Public/Private Ventures and the U.S. Department of Justice. Safer's model provides a variety of direct, outcome-based services to former offenders, including job placement assistance, education, pre-employment training, substance-abuse treatment and supportive services. Safer offers a comprehensive array of program services and established linkages with other agencies and groups to ensure an appropriate and timely response to obstacles for successful employment placement. Its job placement and support structure provides for unsubsidized, but case-managed, job placement opportunities.

Staff members recruit employers in the private sector and promote an interest in hiring participants. The placement staff assess match compatibility, engage participants in the job-seeking process, as well as facilitate and coordinate the introduction of the prospective employee to the prospective employer, and provide retention/follow-up services to ensure a successful match. Placement staff also serve as liaisons between participants, one-stop career centers and vocational training providers, guiding selection decisions, assisting in the application process and coordinating financial aid.

Safer's Sheridan job preparedness program is based on an all-inclusive strategy taken from this knowledge and experience of what works. Safer designed its job training/placement program as part of the continuum of services provided to prepare offenders at the Sheridan Correctional Center for successful reintegration into their communities. As evidenced above, best practice job preparedness programming begins with prerelease services and continues with services post-release into the community. Therefore, the program is delivered to Sheridan inmates as part of a therapeutic community substance abuse treatment program with continuity to community-based job training/placement services as participants transition from Sheridan back into their communities.

In Prison

Safer assesses each individual as he arrives at the Sheridan Correctional Center. This assessment is conducted through a 45-minute interview and 90 minutes of testing (aptitude, interest and barriers). The goal of the individual assessment is to use a strengths-based approach to gain a clear understanding of each participant, enabling job preparedness staff and the participant to develop a customized action plan that optimally prepares him to find, acquire and retain employment, as well as a long-term career development plan. Work history, work attitude, academic achievement, vocational aptitude, vocational preferences and temperament are examined as part of the assessment.

Job preparedness staff analyze the collected data with participant interest, skills, background and local labor market information to determine the participant need level and develop an individualized career action plan in cooperation with the individual. The career action sets the outcome-based goals and competencies needed to be attained prior to external job placement. These goals and competencies guide the participant's Safer program scheduling. The career action plan includes educational and vocational programming recommendations, which are shared with DOC providers.

This career plan is reviewed and updated with the individual every 60 to 90 days during his participation in the job readiness/placement programming. This plan is re-evaluated and updated 45 to 60 days prior to each individual's release.

Due to the great importance of educational and vocational/"hard skills" training to furthering the goals of work force attachment and reduction of recidivism, Safer is working with the DOC to implement several strategies for its educational and vocational programming. First, standard basic education program components are in place to bring participants to at least sixth-grade reading and math levels. Also, Safer is assisting with the implementation of bridge programming for those in the sixth- to ninth-grade educational levels to offer applied education (particularly reading and math) within a sector-based vocational context. Sector selection was based on Illinois labor market growth analysis of those employment sectors friendly to hiring ex-offenders that offer living wage salaries, namely manufacturing, warehousing, building trades and hospitality. In addition, vocational training for those at the ninth-grade level and above is offered in conjunction with GED programming. Vocational training is offered in specific occupations that fall within the bridge sectors, namely machinery, shipping and receiving, welding, plumbing, electric, construction, landscaping, barbering, custodial commercial and culinary arts. Finally, there is coursework for those without a high school diploma or equivalency, covering all five content areas of the exam and designed to enable students to obtain the GED. Computer training and prison industries are offered to those who have attained a high school diploma or GED.

Job Readiness Programming

All Sheridan inmates complete Safer's job readiness training component. Safer's internal work readiness programming focuses on soft skill development and practical application, offered through job readiness workshops, occupational skills enhancement, job shadowing/work placement opportunities and computer lab self-directed vocational training/education.

Safer employs several strategies with Sheridan participants, particularly within its job readiness programming, including integration of soft skills training, creation of work or work-like tasks/teamwork role playing and technology.

Sheridan participants join in a minimum of 40 hours of job readiness workshops and may participate in additional specialty workshops. These workshops were designed with input from employers, clients, cognitive specialists and Safer staff in an effort to address client needs, affect change in client behaviors and prepare clients on the principles important to their future employers. The job readiness curriculum was designed to offer a cognitive-based job preparedness program that trains clients on the targeted business needs of employers.

The job readiness modules focus on learning and practicing the competencies and attitudes needed to compete for employment and function as a valued employee. The workshop modules guide participants through reducing barriers to employment, including individual beliefs; behaviors and attitudes toward work; increasing job attainment and retention competencies; preparing for interviews; and developing resumes, cover letters and reference sheets, as well as impart knowledge about dealing with institutional barriers to employment such as legal barriers and employer requirements.

To help ensure that Sheridan inmates make a successful transition into the work force, Safer, in conjunction with the DOC, is providing job shadowing/placement opportunities at Sheridan, which allow the offenders to practice their job readiness soft skills, as well as learn and/or demonstrate hard skills. Safer matches participants' skills, interests and aptitudes with institutional job placement opportunities.

Safer conducts readiness, placement and follow-up services with the participants and the DOC supervisors in order to structure the job shadowing opportunities as close to an external job as possible. Safer meets with the DOC supervisors to evaluate competencies, provide feedback and determine promotional opportunities to greater responsibilities. This feedback is regularly shared with participants to continue to improve their current job performance and future job readiness.

Safer's Sheridan computer lab provides both instructor-guided and self-guided work readiness technology-based computer program resources, which focus on vocational/hard-skills enhancement. Through educational and occupational skills enhancement, candidates gain a marketable edge in skill areas generally expressed by employers as weaknesses for individuals re-entering the work force. For many, using the lab means using a computer for the first time. Additionally, Safer provides a resource room complete with books, practice materials and staff assistance, aimed at self-directed job readiness.

Release Planning and Transition

Throughout the program, inmates will have worked with their job coach on a career action plan and prior to release, will begin to work with their external job coach. During prerelease, individuals work closely with their external job preparedness staff to set up interviews and facilitate other vocational training and job placement linkages in the community.

A graduation ceremony is held for job readiness graduates. Additionally, upon release, each graduate will take with him an employment portfolio that includes multiple copies of his resume, cover letter, letters of recommendation, competencies achieved, and certificates of completion.

Employment Placement Opportunities

Safer's external program is structured to provide employment opportunities via unsubsidized and subsidized sector-based employers and/or vocational trainers. As part of its approach, Safer has developed a unique business-marketing approach to Chicago-area employers to customize training to meet the needs of the ultimate job training/placement client--the employer. To this end, Safer has developed an employer advisory board and uses the board in the development of its programming materials and expansion of business development relationships.

Safer facilitates unsubsidized job placement opportunities for those returnees who are "work ready," including providing employer support and follow-up as well as employee retention and case management/coaching. For the small group not yet work ready, Safer has developed a cadre of supportive services, including vocational training/placement opportunities with proven outside agencies such as the Illinois Manufacturing Foundation. Additionally, Safer is seeking supplemental funds to institute a transitional jobs program and/or staffing opportunities for Sheridan graduates.

Job Supports and Resources

Safer has two Sheridan "job supports centers" in Illinois. Job supports centers provide easily accessible places for former Sheridan inmates to seek post-release services ranging from re-assessing job placement progress to providing job readiness training and job placement supports. Safer job preparedness staff work out of these sites to support Sheridan participants in their various job readiness, placement and retention needs. Whether accessing interview preparation, clothing and transportation, or updating resumes and conducting job searches, Sheridan graduates receive the support necessary to make a successful transition to the work force. The staff located at the two centers support client access, involvement and retention. Staff provide employment support to Safer Sheridan participants for two years after release.

As a result of this unique opportunity provided by Blagojevich and the Illinois DOC, Safer is able to use the period of incarceration to provide job preparedness services critical to job placement and retention. Most important, offenders have stated that Safer's Sheridan services are critical to their success. Of the 300 inmates who have participated in Safer's Sheridan job preparedness component, 98 percent rated Safer's job preparedness services as helpful and necessary, and the only recommendation they gave was to increase the amount of time spent in job preparedness while incarcerated. Participants said they experienced early positive outcomes, including enhanced employee attitudes, improved computer skills and increased work experience. Other participants have determined through the career planning process that not having a GED is a barrier to their employment success, so they have elected to take part in the DOC GED program. Many have completed their first resume, learned how to communicate with employers about their felony convictions, and through practice, overcome fears of participating in interviews. In the words of a recent participant, "I've always had problems trusting people to help me, but [Safer] made me see that people do care and are willing to help us really have a second chance." Early outcomes based on the first 12 releasees show that within the first few weeks of release, 80 percent of the Safer Sheridan graduates have been placed in living wage, full-time employment positions within the identified industries.
Sheridan Population

As of March 30, 2004:

Average Age: 32.3 years old
66% are black
41% are from Chicago

Cocaine/Crack 28%
Marijuana 27%
Alcohol 19%
Opiates/Heroin 20%
Other 6%

Note: Table made from pie chart.

Employment History

42% -- Less than two years of stable employment
55% -- Last job was unskilled labor
48% -- Unemployed prior to prison
53% -- No high school diploma or GED
29% -- Has valid driver's license
29% -- Has access to car


(1) Farell, J., N. La Vigne and C. Visher. 2003. Illinois prisoners' reflections on returning home. Policy brief. Washington, D.C.: Urban Institute.

(2) Adams, K., K.J. Bennett, T.J. Flanagan, J.W. Marquart, S.J. Cuvelier, E. Fritsch, J. Gerber, D.R. Longmire and V.S. Burton Jr. 1994. A large-scale multidimensional test of the effect of prison education programs on offenders' behavior. The Prison Journal, 74(1):443-449.

Boudin, K. 1993. Participatory literacy education behind bars. Harvard Educational Review, 63(2):207-232.

Harer, M.D. 1995. Prison education program participation and recidivism:

A test of the normalization hypothesis. Washington, D.C.: Federal Bureau of Prisons, Office of Research and Evaluation.

Stillman, J. 1999. Working to learn: Skills development under work first. Philadelphia: Public/Private Ventures.

(3) Honeycutt, R.L. 1995. A study of inmates' perceptions of an effective reading program. Journal of Correctional Education, 46(1):6-9.

Lawrence, S., D. Mears, G Dubin and J. Travis. 2002. The practice and promise of prison programming. Policy Brief. Washington, D.C.: Urban Institute.

Smith, L. and M. Silverman. 1994. Functional literacy education for jail inmates: An examination of Hillsborough County Jail Education Program. Prison Journal, 74:(1):415-434.

(4) Finn, P. 1998. Texas' Project RIO (Re-Integration of Offenders). Program focus. Washington, D.C.: National Institute of Justice, National Institute of Corrections and the Office of Correctional Education.

Rossman, S., S. Sridharan and J. Buck. 1998. The impact of the Opportunity to Succeed Program on employment success. National Institute of Justice Journal, 236(July):14-20.

Stillman, J. 1999.

(5) Houghton, T. and T. Proscio. 2001. Hard work on soft skills: Creating a culture of work in workforce development. Philadelphia: Public/Private Ventures.

(6) Buck, M.L. 2000. Getting back to work: Employment programs for ex-offenders. Field report series. Philadelphia: Public/Private Ventures.

Finn, P. 1998.

Sung, H. 2001. Rehabilitation of felony drug offenders through job development: A look into a prosecutor-led diversion program. The Prison Journal, 81(2):271-286.

Jodina Hicks is vice president for public policy and community partnerships for the Safer Foundation in Chicago.
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Title Annotation:CT Feature
Author:Hicks, Jodina
Publication:Corrections Today
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2004
Previous Article:Community-based treatment for homeless parolees.
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