02/01/2013 04:00 pm ET Updated Apr 03, 2013

Employment as Antidote to a Lifetime of 'Invisible Punishment'

Last week, the New York Times best-selling author Michelle Alexander made her second visit to Nashville in less than a year, commemorating the civil rights accomplishments of Martin Luther King, Jr., by highlighting a current civil rights crisis: the post-King phenomenon of mass incarceration, particularly afflicting the African American community. Alexander earned national attention with her 2010 book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

The prison population numbers in this country have exploded, with an incarceration rate in the United States that is six to 10 times greater than that of other industrialized nations. Moreover, there is a hugely disproportionate impact on African Americans, with one in three young black men projected to serve time in prison if the current trend holds.

What has this to do with Project Return and jobs? From mass incarceration follows mass release -- nearly all who are imprisoned eventually return to our community. Project Return's mission and work centers on helping ex-offenders get jobs. Yet Alexander describes a post-incarceration reality that has been called a harsh and lifelong "invisible punishment," in which ex-offenders complete their prison sentences only to face, for the rest of their lives, a second-class citizenship. As Alexander writes:

"Once you are labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination - employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service - are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow."

When you have no opportunities, when you are faced with discrimination and barriers to a productive life, it's no wonder that you would stand such a great chance of failing, and about four out of 10 are re-arrested within a year of release from prison. Perhaps in no other realm is the "invisible punishment" -- the exclusion from opportunity, the denial of economic survival, and the consignment to failure -- so acutely felt as in the realm of employment. If we were to devise the one mechanism that would most surely defeat an ex-offender's quest for a crime-free, productive life after prison, would it not be to bar his efforts to gain employment? Conversely, if we were to propose one antidote to the effects of mass incarceration and "invisible punishment," certainly it would be jobs.

When it comes to recidivism, it is clear that employment is the biggest indicator of whether or not someone will wind up back in jail. That's why we at Project Return focus on helping recently released ex-offenders find work, teach the skills for finding and keeping jobs, and provide the resources necessary for sustainable employment. Because the need is so great and because we are connecting so many job seekers with employment, Project Return was chosen to be a finalist in The JobRaising Challenge. You can support us at Your support enables us to propel motivated job-seekers, recently released from prison and ready to start aright, onto career paths and into jobs.

Our clients come through our doors wanting to change their lives, not fall back into the situations that led them to prison in the first place. Project Return is working to assure that our brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers who have paid their debt to society and are returning from prison are treated not as second-class citizens, but as people with potential to start over, and given equal opportunity to do so. Aside from the monetary benefit of preventing recidivism, there is the human benefit: that for every ex-offender who is treated with common dignity and not barred from opportunity, we have a new member of our community working for a better life.