When it comes to the question of "What's Working" in the world of justice-system reform, I like to steer the question over to, "Who Is Working?" As you can imagine, the answer is, "not too many people with criminal records." (Unemployment numbers for the formerly incarcerated isn't specifically tracked; but the number is placed between 60-89%).
Shaye first came to the Isidore warehouse east of downtown Los Angeles in 2012. He had just finished his 12th stint in prison, getting a head start on his record as a teenager. Now in his 40s, Shaye had kicked heroin and meth, and seemed really, truly ready to keep himself out of jail. Today, more than two years later, not only has he not gone back in, he is now on salary with benefits, a newly named Assistant Warehouse Manager, still sober, off of welfare, paying down his child-support payments and seeing his son.
What if we hadn't given Shaye a chance to succeed? Without employers willing to offer work opportunities to the formerly incarcerated, those people find underground ways to make a living, and end up back in jail -- at a rate of 60%. Isidore Electronics Recycling is a small (for now), for-profit social enterprise that focuses on employing people who have exited the California prison system, and who are really ready to get to work. We employ people in the field of electronics recycling, refurbishment, repair and data destruction. We aim to pay everyone a living wage, and are really big on second chances, both for the electronics that come into our warehouse, and for the people who come to us truly ready to re-enter the workforce.
We walk in the footsteps of non-profit transitional-employment agencies like RecycleForce and Chrysalis Industries, and we do it with our own spin: offering long term, full-time employment, promoting repair and reuse as much as possible, and, every once in a while, throwing a party and hosting a vintage-video game night. Those non-profits who act as transitional employers are doing the Lord's work: welcoming people immediately out of prison or jail, offering the social services that they need, help with resume writing, clothes for interviews, and, in many cases, providing them with short-term employment opportunities that get them into the swing of the working world. These organizations do what our justice system should do; they support sobriety and mental health, find housing, and get people job-ready. The problem is... where are the jobs that they are getting them ready for?
At Isidore, we are creating them. We are looking for people who have done their time, and who are ready to make a legal living and contribute to society. And when we find them, for the most part, they are so grateful to have a chance at real, long-term employment that we have ended up assembling one of the most loyal and dedicated team of people that I can imagine.
As a country, when we set up huge barriers to employment for people with criminal records, like Shaye, we are doing ourselves a disservice and missing out on some seriously feel-good stories like his. The disservice is to the people who have paid their debt to society but who are never forgiven, and it is also to ourselves, to those of us on the outside who actually are making our society less safe by almost ensuring that people who come out of prison will have to turn back to crime in order to make any money. We must start to create opportunities for people with records who want to and are ready to work. I'm really proud that we are doing more and more of that at Isidore, and I am even more proud to say that we are not alone.
Last month, we officially joined forces with six other electronics-recycling social enterprises across the country to launch the Impact Recyclers network. We are the largest network of certified social-enterprise electronic-waste recyclers in the U.S. (or in the world, for that matter!). We all provide high quality, secure and environmentally responsible recycling services and all hire people who are willing to work but who have the hardest time getting a job. Between us, our employees are made up of people on the autism spectrum, people with mental disabilities, and, of course, people who have spent time in the justice system.
Back in December, a few days after we told Shaye that he would be getting benefits and a salary, he popped his head into my office and said, "Hey, what day are we going to sign the paperwork? Because I told my dad about it, and he asked me to wear a shirt and tie and take a picture and send it to him. And then he sent me a tie to wear. And I've learned how to tie it on YouTube." A few days later, the shirt and tie went on, and sign that paperwork, he did. It was a really good day for me, for Shaye, and all of us at Isidore.
This post is part of a Huffington Post What's Working series, in partnership with #cut50, co-sponsors of the recent Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform (Washington, D.C., March 26). The Summit was part of a movement to popularize support for criminal-justice reforms while also having comprehensive discussions about the policies, replicable models and data-driven solutions needed to achieve systemic changes. The series will focus on such solutions. For more information on #cut50, read here. And to read all the posts in the series, see our What's Working coverage here.