Public Safety & Justice

Job Freedom

Can the lessons of welfare reform be applied to the prison system?
by | July 31, 2009
 

Elvis is angry. It's early Monday morning, and the inmate whose mother loved the King of Rock 'n' Roll is sitting at a table in the cafeteria of the Montgomery County Pre-Release Center, a low-security correctional facility in suburban Rockville, Maryland. "The story was you came here and they would help you get a job," Elvis fumes. "What help?"

For Elvis, this is the first day of a new regime: an 8 o'clock meeting, then over to the computer room and telephone room for three solid hours of job hunting -- all on his own. As far as he was concerned, the promise he had counted on -- that the center would help place him in a position -- "was false," he says angrily.

"I was counting on a lot of things," he says. "I could get my hair done. I could kiss my girl like I wanted, I could hold her in my arms. That can't happen. I can't go see my daughter graduate. I can't go to my grandmother's funeral." He's right. At the Montgomery Pre-Release Center, there's just one way to earn the privilege of spending significant time outside: You have to find work.

And that, says PRC chief Stefan LoBuglio, is exactly the point of the program. "The focus is work," says LoBuglio. "There is no basketball playing going on here. You will see no TVs turned on. If they don't have a job, they should be seeking one. We are trying to create an environment here that is serious about this work process."

LoBuglio rejects the philosophy of many prisoner reentry programs -- that those released need substantial training. "The lament in corrections," he says, "is that there are too many barriers, they are struggling with too many demons. Sometimes in the field of reentry, we aim for these huge policy solutions, like let's expunge criminal records or remove the ability of employers to ask about past criminal history. We talk about these huge job training and industry apprenticeship programs." At PRC, the philosophy is entirely different, and very simple: Get a job. Any job that pays. If anger management or substance abuse prevents someone from finding employment, then it needs to be addressed, too -- but the job comes first.

If this sounds familiar, it may be because the approach PRC has developed under LoBuglio over the past four years resembles one that has been used successfully in many places to deal with welfare recipients leaving the world of public assistance. Teaching participants new skills is not his focus. Instilling the basic habits of employment and responsibility is.

By most accounts, it's been remarkably effective. More than 85 percent of PRC "residents" (the name used for its inmates) exit the program with jobs and, for the first time in the lives of many, with savings. (The PRC withholds 10 percent of wages as savings, payable upon completion of the program; it also withholds 20 percent of gross wages to offset program costs and requires participants to make child support and restitution payments.) Even during the current economic downturn, most have managed to find a job within a month's time. The numbers PRC is turning in have forced policy makers and corrections officials around the country to reassess the conventional wisdom about prisoner reentry.

"How is it that when most people leave prison, they can't find jobs, but most of the people who leave us have jobs?" LoBuglio asks. "How is it that we get jobs in a reasonable time period -- in a matter of weeks?"

Few people doubt that the American penal system needs to change. With just 5 percent of the world's population, the United States is home to one-quarter of the world's prison inmates. At any given time, roughly 2.3 million Americans are behind bars. Another 5 million are on probation or out on parole. The system has never demonstrated much success at deterring others from committing crimes, and even less at rehabilitating the prisoners. The one claim that could be made with some plausibility until recently was that the system reduced crime through "incapacitation" -- preventing those locked up from committing any further offenses while behind bars.

But whatever the merits of those criminology arguments, they may be moot at this point. Whether the system produces results or not, it is simply unaffordable. All told, federal, state and local governments now spend more than $200 billion each year on law enforcement, the courts, and the penal system. None of those levels of government has the money to pay for it.

Nowhere does the waste of funds seem clearer than when it comes to reentry. Two-thirds of prisoners leaving confinement are re-incarcerated within three years. This stark figure has generated something unusual in Washington: cooperation between Democrats and Republicans. Last year, Congress passed a major piece of legislation, The Second Chance Act, which provides $360 million in funding for prisoner reentry services over a two-year period. But while there is bipartisan support for doing something, there is less agreement on what should actually be done. Some advocacy groups have focused their efforts on attempting to eliminate legal restrictions barring inmates from certain types of jobs, arguing that the stigma of imprisonment needs to be lifted. Others have sought to increase treatment of substance-abuse problems, involve family members, victims or peers in the reentry, and connect prisoners with faith-based sponsors. But the issue that comes up time and again is jobs.

"Nothing is conclusive here," says Kim Hendrickson, who recently wrote an article on work-first reentry programs in City Journal. "But there are so many enticing things that point to this as the one thing that cuts recidivism and gets guys back on their feet."

A class of nine residents gathers at 9:30 a.m. on a Monday morning in a conference room off the main hall of the Pre-Release Center. The group's makeup reflects the unhappy dynamics of prisoner reentry. Of those seated around the conference table -- eight men and one woman -- only one is in the prison system for the first time. Two of the men (including one in his early 40s) have never held a regular job at all. At least half of the rest have work histories that can be described as spotty at best.

In the past, these inmates, if they were lucky, might have been directed toward a program to equip them with specific skills -- asbestos removal, environmental remediation or, most desirable of all, a union-supported apprenticeship. Unfortunately, training programs of this sort have a mixed record. A recent evaluation by the Center for Employment Opportunity in New York found that participants indeed were significantly less likely to re-offend than other ex-convicts but that they were no more likely to be employed.

In contrast, the PRC seems able to place almost all of its residents in jobs. To be sure, some of its successes reflect its location: the PRC is a short walk to bus stops and a subway station, and the job market in the greater Washington, D.C., area is far stronger than that of most places right now. But the PRC also seems to have gotten better results by doing less for its residents and demanding more.

"That's what I find fascinating about this program," says Rutgers University economist Ann Piehl, who has studied PRC. Residents "go get jobs and they stick with them even though they're getting very little money for their effort -- a majority is taxed away or goes back to the county for child support or victims' compensation. But people stick with it for other rewards."

Piehl argues that the corrections community has missed something very important about reentry. While a prison record does create real barriers to employment, the moment of release itself also is a time of real possibility. She points to research suggesting that a majority of offenders actually are more motivated about finding jobs, and more likely to stick with them, than they were prior to their sentencing. That's one of the principles behind PRC -- make working a habit, now.

"We know that many of our residents are low-skilled individuals," says LoBuglio. "They will churn in the labor market. What we can best do for them is teach them job-search skills and the skill of how to get a job and to see them get that job. We don't have any illusion that the jobs we are going to get them are jobs they are going to be in five years hence."

In the first week at PRC, mornings are generally devoted to meeting with a work-release coordinator, drawing up a résumé (with the assistance of a volunteer), and moving toward the procurement of a Social Security card and a valid driver's license. LoBuglio comes by to offer each of the participants a warm welcome. But he concludes with a stiff warning: Don't try to leave the premises without a pass. PRC is an unusual corrections facility in that there are no bars or gates to prohibit residents from walking out the door. "There are 2,700 jails in the country. Less than a dozen have a program like this," he tells the residents. Despite the warnings, about half a dozen people every year do try to escape. So far, all have been recaptured.

In the afternoons, there is a "Tools for Change" class, taught this week by Pernell Shaw, a longtime caseworker with the program. Shaw's professorial demeanor belies his hardscrabble past: He started out working as a trash collector on The Block, the notorious red-light district in downtown Baltimore. He knows where most of his students came from, and he knows, when it seems warranted, how to cut to the chase. He talks to the class about the habits that have brought them back into the criminal justice system.

Shaw has four afternoons to work on this group. Everyone takes a "criminal thinking" assessment test and those who score near the top of the criminality scale attend evening sessions as well. This particular week, all but two of the people in the class qualify for the extra counseling. But after that first week, they and all the others are expected to job-hunt full time.

Compared to most jails or prisons, the PRC is small, with just 188 beds. But for a prisoner reentry program, PRC is large and strikingly daring in its selection of inmates. Many reentry programs exclude sex offenders and people convicted of violent crimes. The PRC does not. Half of the residents there were convicted of felony offenses. "The individuals we exclude," LoBuglio says, "are the people with a history of escape or people whose legal status would prevent them from working."

Tuesday is the day residents have "team meetings" with the staff members who will be overseeing their transition to employment. This week, most of the newcomers have been assigned to the ward supervised by Chris Johnson, a redheaded dynamo who gave up her catering career in Florida to become a corrections official. Each resident also has a case manager and is assigned to one of the PRC's two work supervisors.

According to LoBuglio, most residents fall into one of three categories. First are the people with "pretty good jobs, prospects and skills." The attitude with those people, says LoBuglio, is "let's not teach them asbestos removal. Let's get their old job back." Another third have worked before and have some job skills but also have more serious problems. Then there's the third and final group -- the people who have never really had a steady job at all.

First up at this Tuesday morning's team meeting is Chris. The 25-year-old would appear to belong to the first, least difficult group. Chris had worked at a Midas muffler shop as a supervisor. Then one day, he was pulled over driving a damaged truck -- on a suspended license. Police also found two grams of marijuana in his front pocket.

This is Chris' third time through prison, and his second time through the PRC. On a previous occasion, he was returned to prison after threatening staff and stealing from other residents. But "he appears to be a calmer person now, better able to monitor his emotions," says Sylvia Hernandez, his caseworker. He had been locked up for about six weeks prior to his transfer to the PRC.

Chris enters the conference room, looking penitent. He's clear on his goals. "I want to go home and not come back here," he says. "I want to do right this time. I miss normal living." A staff member presses him on how he plans to stay out of trouble. "I haven't lived at home since I was 16. I am going to go home. I am going to go to Narcotics Anonymous meetings every day. I am going to go to church every Sunday." As for his job at Midas, Chris says he expects to be back at work in a week. "They know I'm here," he says. "They gave me a letter. It talks real good about me, actually."

The next person up is Keith. This past January, police responded to a call about a camera stolen from a Circuit City store. They caught up with Keith in a parking lot, whereupon he drove away and refused to stop in response to police commands. When they got him to pull over, two cops had to break the window to get him out. They searched the vehicle and found a baggie of marijuana and five baggies of crack cocaine. He also had two police radio scanners and the stolen camera.

This isn't Keith's first time in the criminal justice system, either. His rap sheet lists more than a dozen convictions for grand larceny, second-degree assault and possession of a weapon. He served more than seven years in Virginia for larceny. His PRC screener noted his "extreme criminal record." Still, Keith did have a regular job before reentering the system: He worked for Washington, D.C.'s child and family services agency.

"He worked for child and family services?" asks Chris Johnson, incredulously. "How does a guy with that record get a job with child and family services?"

"He's a phone and computer tech," answers work supervisor Hillel Raskas. "So he may not deal with clients."

Keith's goals sound straightforward: "Keep working on my sobriety, continuing my education at college, and employment." As for the prospects of returning to his old job, Keith says he called his old boss yesterday. "He couldn't tell me if I could go back to that position," Keith reports. "He said he has to check my folder. I told myself I will be patient and wait."

LoBuglio's third group, those with no significant work history, includes people like Jerrell, who was arrested for shoplifting $500 worth of products from a store in order to resell them for drugs. It's not true to say that Jerrell has never worked -- he had a job as a bus attendant in 2004. But he quit it to feed his addictions -- crack, marijuana and malt liquor, in stupendous quantities.

"Have you ever been clean before?" the case manager asks.

"The longest I have ever been clean was two weeks."

"What helped you stay clean for two weeks?"

"Not being around my old buddies."

"What is it going to take to work?" the case manager asks.

"I have no idea."

The heart of PRC's program is a set of six levels that residents progress through on their way to release. Each level comes with a more generous set of visitation and exit privileges, and each is tied in some way to finding and then maintaining satisfactory employment. In the first phase of the program, residents are allowed three visitors a week, but are forced to be in bed by 10 p.m. When they find a job, they can stay up later and go out on 8-hour home visits. Privileges ramp up from there. At the highest stage, inmates have no curfew, unlimited numbers of visitors and multiple 40-hour home passes. In the corrections world, according to Rutgers' Piehl, rules often seem arbitrary and punitive, but the PRC's rules are straightforward and effective at encouraging even the tough cases to at least try finding a job. "That behavioral piece is really uncommon," Piehl says.

Of the class of nine, two immediately go back to work at their old jobs. Keith and Chris do not. Keith is told that his previous supervisor at child and family services had been transferred to the motor pool and that his old job most likely no longer exists. Chris' boss at Midas, after spending several days "thinking it over," calls back and informs him that Midas has a mandatory 120-day cooling off period.

But neither Keith nor Chris seems discouraged. Both hold the same back-up plan -- working as a plumber's assistant. Even Jerrell is hopeful. He and the group's sole female resident, Kassie, have teamed up to look for jobs in retail. They're hoping a local Giant grocery store might hire them on as stockers.

For the first few days, nothing seems to pan out. Chris' plumbing gig falls through when the business owner (a friend's father) learns that Chris doesn't yet have a valid driver's license. Reinstating it would mean straightening out a child-support payment problem. Likewise, Keith's plumbing job fails to materialize. Jerrell and Kassie are still waiting to hear back from Giant.

According to the Urban Institute's Nancy LaVigne, such setbacks are quite common. Offenders exiting the corrections system often claim that a job is waiting for them -- only to find that the anticipated opportunity is more complicated than they expected. About half of the people who say they have a post-prison job lined up are actually employed in that position two to four months after release, she says. So it's hardly surprising that Chris and Keith would overstate their job prospects.

But what happens next is surprising. The class keeps looking. At the end of his second week at the PRC, Keith's job as a construction site plumber's assistant does come through. He's only earning $9 an hour -- less than half of what it would take to support himself in civilian life. But he's already making plans to do better: Next month, he's going to start a class at Goodwill Industries in environmental services.

Keith isn't happy with the PRC's do-it-yourself attitude. "They send you out to the wolves," he says. He could live without the rules and the extensive monitoring -- during a recent 8-hour home visit, his case manager called three times to check on his whereabouts. Nor does he much like the idea that the PRC approach has pushed him to work. "A person has to have it within himself to work," Keith says. But it's clear that he does want to climb the PRC's ladder of privileges as quickly as he can, to gain more and more of the freedoms of the outside world.

Most of Keith's classmates are trying, too. Jerrell has made it through a preliminary screening to a job interview at Target. And Chris has persevered with Midas, to the surprise and delight of his work supervisor. After the plumbing job fell through, Chris tried another Midas repair shop -- and got offered a job as a technician, working five days a week plus Saturdays. The pay isn't as good as his old position, but still, Chris says as he comes home from work one Saturday evening, "It's good to be outside."

Chris heads off to the cafeteria to enjoy a perk of his current standing at PRC -- dinner with his father, who's here for a visit. He's already thinking about level three. He'd be eligible for a 16-hour home visit, instead of an 8-hour visit. "People say this place sucks, but look at what it's done for me. I've fixed my child support and gotten my driver's license.

"You have a sense of stability," Chris goes on. "You have an object and goal. You're able to make money."

Not everyone in this particular class shares Chris' upbeat assessment. But the system at PRC has a way of encouraging everyone to give work a shot -- even the disgruntled Elvis. For a while, Elvis will entertain only unrealistic ideas about what jobs are available to him -- what he really wants to do, he says, is take a few college criminology classes and become a secret agent. PRC staff won't sign off on fanciful plans like that one. So for now, Elvis is looking for something a little less exciting but more realistic. He has recently interviewed for a job as a supervisor of gas-meter readers. He doesn't get the job. Until he succeeds, he's stuck in the cafeteria, computer room and telephone room, job hunting.

That's fine, according to work supervisor Hillel Raskas. "Ultimately," he says, "it is up to them."

 

 

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