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Green Jobs for Ex-Cons: Fixing Broken Systems

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Reports by the Labor Department last Friday of an 8.3 percent unemployment rate, the lowest it's been in nearly three years, signal hope of economic recovery. Almost two million jobs were added in the last year. Though warning of fluctuation, President Obama announced that "the recovery is speeding up."

But as they inevitably must, gross national statistics veil those boats not lifted on the rising tide. It is believed that the unemployment rate among ex-offenders exceeds fifty percent. (National statistics are not available, but estimates from state agencies of unemployment among the formerly incarcerated range from about 35 to more than 60 percent.)

Our country, a promised land of opportunity, needs a national green jobs program that targets ex-offenders.

The United States maintains 25 percent of the world's incarcerated population, locking up one in every hundred adults. More than half of all black men without a high school diploma will go to prison. Our extensively privatized corrections system generates the perverse incentive by which high incarceration rates buoy corporate profits. The 2005 annual report of the Corrections Corporation of America advises its investors that:

Our growth is generally dependent upon our ability to obtain new contracts to develop and manage new correctional and detention facilities... [A]ny changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them.

More than 650,000 ex-offenders are released every year with little more than fifty dollars in pocket and a bus pass. Amid fitful economic recovery and the fierce competition of over-qualified job applicants, prospects appear grim. It's no wonder recidivism rates top 60 percent in some states.

Our country also faces immense environmental challenges spanning across the next few decades. The American Society of Civil Engineers recently gave a grade of D+ to the aging U.S. electric grid, which is inefficient, ill-equipped to manage intermittent energy technologies, and incapable of adapting to smart grid innovations.

Our drinking and wastewater infrastructure both received grades of D-, and budgets allocated to upgrading these systems fall far short of what is required.

The confluence of these challenges affords a clear and profound opportunity.

The Urban Resources Initiative, through its GreenSkills program, works with small crews of ex-offenders every year, merging prison reentry with job training in urban forestry and environmental stewardship. We are part of a growing group of organizations across the country testing the premise that horticultural work can restore urban ecosystems, environmental value, and vulnerable populations.

The recent installation of a solar panel array at two correctional facilities in Merced County, Illinois, to defray operational costs opens the possibility of not simply a transitional green jobs training program, but of a green jobs pipeline that runs from inside prisons to prisoner release and fulltime employment. Rather than contract Siemens to install the panels, as was done, could Merced County have created an internal job corps trained in solar installation and efficiency retrofits?

In a short article last year, The Wall Street Journal cited a report on the "top 10 thriving industries" of 2011. Correctional facilities made the list with a haul of $35 billion in revenue during 2010. Wind and solar power also made the list.

In 2011, Corrections and Medicaid were the only two areas of state budgets that saw a percentage increase over the previous year. Transportation, public assistance, and education all lost a share of their budgets, with public universities taking the biggest hit.

Jacob Lew, President Obama's budget director and Chief of Staff, has written that, "The budget is not just a collection of numbers, but an expression of our values and aspirations."

It seems Mr. Lew could hardly have uttered a more damning indictment of U.S. values. It's time we did better.