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The Employment of Ex-Offenders is Important to Everyone

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It's tempting not to think about folks getting out of prison, returning to our neighborhoods. If you've never been to prison, it's easy to be suspicious and dismissive of those who have. If you find yourself having to deal in some way with folks getting out of prison, it's tempting to go out of your way to avoid it as much as possible. It's tempting to think of ex-prisoners as bound up with trouble, and of their return as bad news. It's tempting to turn a blind eye, a deaf ear, a cold shoulder. But people are getting out of prison and returning to our community all the time.

Their return is inevitable; it's not whether people return from prison, but how they return. Successfully or unsuccessfully. Despite our temptation to ignore them and their plight, their successful return is important to all of us. On this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we honored a man who was a hero for our modern world, who touted "the interrelatedness of all communities" and preached unity and our connectedness with one another. When he himself was incarcerated, he wrote, "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. ... Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds."

The phenomenon is known as "ex-offender reentry," and it's happening every day. The return from prison is a necessary, predictable occurrence, when persons have been locked up for crimes and then emerge from incarceration, as almost 100 percent of them do. It's estimated that each year as many as 5,000 people who were convicted of felonies are returning from prison to the Nashville area. That's nearly 100 a week. Each of these persons is someone's brother, someone's mother, someone's child, and they are all members of our community.

They face, though, an uphill and almost insurmountable battle. Many emerge from prison without much more than the shirts on their backs and their criminal records. And the circumstances to which ex-offenders would return may not be conducive to good choices and positive opportunities. Too often, the circumstances they were in before they were incarcerated -- lack of education, little to no income, minimal or no employment experience, impoverished neighborhoods with scarce economic opportunity and prevalence of criminal activity -- are the circumstances to which, without intervention, they will likely have little choice but to return to.

But, return they will. And what does an unsuccessful return look like? Unemployment. Homelessness. Destitution. Desperation. Altogether undesirable conditions for our community. But the greatest of these is unemployment. More than anything else, the difficulty an ex-offender faces in gaining employment correlates with recidivism. Conversely, the best predictor of a successful return from prison is employment. Those who return from prison and get jobs are far more likely to keep from going back to prison. If an ex-offender can get a job, so many of the other important factors for a successful return fall into place: income, housing, food are some of the obvious tangible benefits, and self-esteem, a structured lifestyle, and a foothold for the future are equally if not more profoundly impactful.

The job's the thing. And people returning to the community from prison are some of the most motivated job applicants there are. This is where Project Return comes in. Project Return focuses on employment-boosting for ex-offenders. Typically, they lack the "soft" and "hard" skills that would otherwise lead them to successful employment. Our focus is on helping folks get the support they need to stay out of prison and establish productive, crime-free lives in the community to which they've rightfully returned. Getting and keeping a job is key to the ex-offender's successful return, so Project Return's primary focus is on imparting the necessary instruction, support, counseling, and opportunities that will lead the ex-offender to employment. The JobRaising Challenge is a great fit for the work we do, and you can find more information about it at http://www.crowdrise.com/ProjectReturn-jr.

Project Return's multi-faceted employment program includes a job-readiness curriculum, taught to a new class of ex-offenders each week and geared specifically to their needs as persons with criminal backgrounds. The participants learn job search skills and strategies for job retention, and then they proceed to one-on-one sessions with client services counselors to develop their résumés, get job leads related to their skills and interest, and gain individualized coaching on how to pursue job openings, present themselves in interviews, and convey "hireability." Wraparound services include assistance with re-acquiring their ID documentation; the provision of emergency financial assistance, food, and clothing; the disbursement of bus passes; child support services; alcohol and drug counseling; referrals for housing and medical care; and longer term case management and employment support services.

The odds are against them. Statistically, nearly half of them could be re-arrested within their first year back from prison, and the greatest amount of re-arrests occurs within their first three to six months after release. Project Return's clients -- members of our community and interconnected with all of us -- emerge from prison and stand at a fork in the road where, without the assistance of Project Return, employment is often unattainable and recidivism becomes the more likely direction. Instead, we are teaching them how to get and keep a job, and providing the wraparound support to sustain them in that process, making a better community for everyone.