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Finding jobs for formers offenders.

Looking for work is one of the most difficult challenges an offender faces after being released from prison. A Texas program run by the state's employment commission gives former offenders a fighting chance to get back in the job market.

In the mid-1980s, Texas faced dramatic prison crowding problems and a federal court order mandating early inmate releases. In an effort to prevent former offenders from returning to lives of crime, Gov. Mark White asked Mary Nabors, then commissioner of the Texas Employment Commission, to set up a special jobs program for ex-offenders.

In response, TEC developed Project Forward, a program that teaches ex-offenders basic job skills and educates potential employers about the benefits of hiring these individuals. Renamed Project RIO, or Re-Integration of Offenders, the program has become an important component in Texas corrections.

Originally begun in Dallas and Houston, the project has expanded into 90 Texas cities and has operations in 35 state prison units. TEC staff work together with staff from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to address the needs of both offenders and potential employers.

In-prison Programming

Project RIO has 188 staff. Of these, 80 are assigned to work in Texas prison units with inmates interested in seeking employment after release.

Inmates are shown a video on Project RIO upon entering the Texas corrections system. Once placed in a facility, inmates learn more about the program through their unit's RIO staff person. Inmates interested in applying for Project RIO services complete an application form. Staff administer interest and aptitude tests to ensure each offender can be targeted for employment in the proper field.

RIO staff counsel the inmates not only on the importance of post-release employment but also on ways to best use their time in prison through enrolling in education classes, vocational programs and prison industries programs.

In addition, staff at the prisons prepare a written employability plan for each inmate, which is later transferred to RIO staff in the community. Finally, RIO staff help inmates secure the documents they will need for employment upon release.

Post-release Assistance

After release from prison, RIO clients have access to a variety of services, including job search workshops, free bus tokens for seeking employment, job development and placement services, and referral to support services such as agencies and organizations providing housing, food and clothing.

Depending on their skills, offenders can be placed in any of a variety of jobs, including construction, food service and warehouse work. In some cases, the offender is able to find a job paying only minimum wage. RIO staff encourage them to look at any type of employment as a means to stay out of trouble and eventually improve their quality of life. Those who wish to advance or seek higher paying jobs once employed can continue to use RIO'S services.

Many of the employers RIO uses are companies that regularly list jobs with the TEC. Others are recruited specifically to hire RIO clients. To gamer support for the program from Texas businesses, RIO staff speak to local chambers of commerce, Rotary clubs and other civic organizations, explaining to them the importance of offering former offenders a chance to work and stay out of prison.

RIO speakers tell employers it makes good sense to hire ex-offenders who are willing and eager to work. Employers want workers who are clean and sober, punctual, dependable and motivated--values that are stressed to RIO participants through the project's workshops.

One incentive offered to employers through RIO includes fidelity bonding privileges. The Federal Bonding Program offers coverage for "hard to place" applicants such as ex-offenders who are ineligible for fidelity bonding through regular commercial insurance carriers.

Once an employer hires a RIO client, project staff provide support by encouraging clients to continue in appropriate Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous programs. RIO staff also encourage employers and employees to contact them if problems arise on the job. Often it helps just to listen to a RIO client's problems.

RIO'S Success

Between October 1985 and May 1993, Project RIO secured employment for 62,322 (68 percent) of the 91,320 former offenders it served, using more than 12,000 employers. Follow-up studies have found that 56 percent of the RIO clients who find work are still employed after six months. Those who went to work had a 3 percent recidivism rate, compared with 10 percent for those who were not employed. Studies also found that non-RIO offenders were two times more likely than RIO participants to be reincarcerated after six months.

The average cost of serving a RIO client is $387. A two-year study of RIO clients conducted by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Pardons and Paroles Division called the project "extremely cost-effective," and indicated savings to the state of more than $16.5 million per year in reincarceration costs. In addition, those who find employment pay an average of $1,000 per year in state and local taxes.

Texas businesses also have benefited from Project RIO. Aside from the bonding incentives offered to employers, they also have access to a number of skilled, well-trained workers.

TEC has found Project RIO to be a worthwhile program for the state of Texas. TEC Administrator William Grossenbacher says, "Project RIO is one of the Texas Employment Commission's most significant special programs. From a pilot program of two sites, Project RIO has expanded to over 90 Texas cities. Originally funded with federal discretionary monies, one indication of the program's effectiveness and success is the funding of RIO'S expansion and continuation through State of Texas General Revenue Funds by the Texas legislature."
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No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Title Annotation:Texas program
Author:Robins, Carl
Publication:Corrections Today
Date:Aug 1, 1993
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