No Sure Thing

Employment can certainly help individuals leaving prison but sometimes it just takes time for attitudes to change, said Dwight Pharr, 48, who has been to prison six times. (Photo by Jason Reblando)

Employment can certainly help individuals leaving prison but sometimes it just takes time for attitudes to change, said Dwight Pharr, 48, who has been to prison six times. (Photo by Jason Reblando)

A little more than a decade ago, Willie Fry’s heroin problem cost him his job. He was a client-outreach worker at the Infant Mortality Network and enjoyed it, but getting high and making it to work on time didn’t mix. About four months into the job, his attendance problems led to a suspension, and he didn’t go back.

Then the addiction cost him his freedom.

He was selling drugs at the intersection of Cicero Avenue and Huron Street to fund his habit when police pulled up alongside him. He ran. They caught him. He was sentenced to prison for possession. A year and a half later, he was sentenced again for dealing. And, a year after that, he was sentenced to another three years.

But, just after his third release from prison, Fry had a breakthrough: a return to legitimate employment. He landed a job as a truck driver’s helper for an appliance company, and, for the first time since he’d left the Infant Mortality Network, he made money without breaking the law. “When I first started the job, it was actually what I wanted to do—it was a good thing because it gave me opportunity,” said Fry, now 35. “But I wasn’t mentally ready for it. I worked for a little bit, and then I got back to what I call my madness—I was actually starting back on my addiction when I got the job.”

Because of his addiction, Friday paychecks meant Monday no-shows, and, after about two months, Fry was fired. He was handed his fourth drug conviction about three weeks after that; his fifth, three years later.

A job alone may not keep someone out of jail, statistics show. Those who find work are indeed less likely to reoffend, and many charitable organizations and lawmakers have focused on employment programs for former offenders. But experts say cases like Fry’s illustrate the need for a holistic approach to lowering recidivism, including an interest in factors like housing, substance abuse and attitudes.

Former prisoners themselves readily admit that a job isn’t a cure-all. For example, 47-year-old Alphonso Prater, who has been to prison four times, mostly for dealing drugs, described the street lifestyle as a “roller coaster.”

“If they catch you at the bottom, in the gutter, you might take that job,” he said. “But, if they catch you on that high roll, you’re not going to get off.” Prater now works as an outreach worker for CeaseFire, a Chicago-based violence prevention organization.

After serving 11 years, Tyree Chapman received guidance at St. Leonard’s House. He now assists other former prisoners there as a house manager. (Photo by Jason Reblando)

In 2001, the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based policy research organization, began a study called “Chicago Prisoners’ Experiences Returning Home.” Researchers asked 400 former prisoners released into the Chicago area about employment four to eight months after release. At the 13-month mark, they checked to see who had returned to prison.

Among those who were working four to eight months after release, 18 percent were back in prison by 13 months. Of those who were unemployed, 33 percent went back. Participants who did not go back were also more likely to have worked prior to entering prison than those who returned to prison.

Paul Kleppner, director for the Office for Social Policy Research at Northern Illinois University, said individuals who can’t find work will find other—sometimes illegal—ways to make money. “If you’re not gainfully employed, you’re going to be not-gainfully employed,” said Kleppner. “If you can’t get a job, what can you do?”

Employers are reluctant to hire people with felony records—some former prisoners reported filling out as many as 30 applications without being offered a single interview. Also, in a study by Northwestern University sociologist Devah Pager, 17 percent of white job applicants with criminal records received callbacks compared to 34 percent of white job applicants without records. For African Americans, just 5 percent with criminal records got callbacks compared to 14 percent of black job applicants with no records.

Tommy Turner, 43, has worked seasonal jobs for the past five years but nothing permanent. During that time, he’s also been to prison twice for drug convictions. Turner believes he could have stayed out of trouble if he’d had a year-round job. “I would have been able to provide for myself and my family, and put food on the table,” said Turner, a client of Chicago’s Safer Foundation, which provides services to former prisoners looking for work. “It was during my times off that I started selling drugs, using drugs, and eventually I didn’t have the patience to look for a job.”

Homeless and unable to find work in 2003 while on parole from a burglary conviction, Richard Russo stole and sold stolen property to get by. But then he found a part-time job at a fast-food, pizza restaurant. “I wasn’t committing crimes at that point because I was getting a steady paycheck,” said Russo, 28. However, the thefts soon caught up with him and led to a one-year sentence.

Even low-wage jobs might serve as a deterrent for some returning home from prison. The Urban Institute study indicates that former prisoners who were working earned about $9 an hour, a figure that compares favorably to the earnings of their returned-to-crime counterparts, according to one study by a pair of University of Chicago scholars. In analyzing one Chicago gang, Sudhir Venkatesh and Steven Levitt found that low-level drug dealers made less than $4 an hour.

“You read in newspapers where people make $20,000 in two weeks, but some of these guys only make a couple hundred dollars on the street,” said Tio Hardiman, director of gang mediation services and community organizing for the Chicago Project for Violence Prevention, which runs CeaseFire. “But they compare a hundred dollars to no money [if they can’t find a job], and they’re drawn back to the street life because they have families to feed or they have to feed themselves.”

But a job can benefit those returning home in ways beyond their pocketbooks. “It keeps you grounded and focused, even if the pay might not be as good as you’d want. Idle hands are the devil’s workshop, and, when you go home, you’re worn out,” said Tyree Chapman, who served 11 years in prison for armed robbery and murder. “My job helps me feel good about myself, besides paying the bills.”

After release, Chapman stayed at St. Leonard’s House, a facility that guides ex-offenders into self-sufficient lifestyles. He found work as a machine operator and later returned to St. Leonard’s, where he now serves as a house manager.

For all of these reasons—money, stability, self-esteem—people trying to help ex-offenders often think employment is the best way to reduce recidivism.

“We focus 100 percent on employment,” said Jodina Hicks, vice president of public policy and community partnerships for Safer. “We understand there are other factors, and we work with clients on them, but we see it all as an effort to propel them into employment.”

Hicks believes Safer’s model is working. More than 54 percent of those released from Illinois prisons in 2000 returned within three years. But clients that Safer successfully places in jobs—meaning they work at least 30 days—return to prison just 18 percent of the time, according to research by Arthur Lurigio, a psychologist and professor of criminal justice at Loyola University Chicago.

Chicago-area charitable foundations also focus on employment far more than any other factor. In July 2004, The Woods Fund of Chicago released an analysis of local services provided to individuals released from prison, including a breakdown of the programs to which 15 major foundations provided money.

Eight foundations gave grants to help with employment services or vocational training, compared to four for housing, four for education and three for health services. Only one gave money to help reunite ex-offenders with their families, and only one earmarked funds to reintegrate former prisoners into their communities.

“There isn’t one thing that will fix everything, and it’s short-sighted if people think otherwise, but employment is a crucial piece of the puzzle,” said Nikki Will Stein, executive director of the Polk Bros. Foundation, which reported funding employment services, vocational training, housing and community reintegration.

Also, most programs that receive “employment” grants refer their clients to other services, said Felicia Dawson, a program officer for family and community asset building at The Steans Family Foundation. Steans provided funds for employment services, vocational training and housing, according to the Woods Fund report.

The government has also made employment the focus of its efforts to aid people returning home from prison. On Jan. 1, 2004, for instance, Illinois revised its criminal code to allow increased access to a range of state business licenses that were previously off-limits to individuals with a felony conviction. Other laws have made it easier for them to get identification cards and seal low-level felony records.

“There are other things that are not available to people who have records,” like public housing, higher education funding, access to credit and the ability to adopt children, said state Rep. Connie Howard, a Democrat whose 34th District includes parts of the South Side and south suburbs. She sponsored the legislation that allows some to seal their records. “But I think that jobs are just so important,” she said.

As important as jobs may be, everyone with a job is not safe—and everyone without one isn’t doomed. Such exceptions abound in the Urban Institute’s study: two-thirds of unemployed former prisoners didn’t go back to prison, while one in five of those who were working did. Advocates, experts and former prisoners point to a wide variety of reasons this could be the case.

Ex-offenders might perform best when they straighten out their problems before finding work. Drug treatment, for example, has to come before and during employment, said Tom Wetzel, former director of business relations for the North Lawndale Employment Network. “I’ve seen addicts who’ve been clean for awhile get that first paycheck and go back,” he added.

Fry, the former heroin addict who went back to prison even though he had a job, received help through the North Lawndale Employment Network’s U-Turn Permitted program. Like many programs assisting former prisoners, U-Turn requires drug tests. “In my situation, the number one thing was getting clean,” said Fry, who completed the program in May and now works at a peanut factory. “If you’re not clean, your mind is only on one thing, and that’s getting high.”

Bernard Jones doesn’t have a job, but that’s because he plans to take time getting his life together. Since his mother’s suicide, when he was 9, Jones has struggled with anger and drug problems. In the past, when he was able to find a job or saw any opportunity to make money, he’d jump at it. But things haven’t always worked out. Jones, 46, has been to prison six times, most often on drug charges. He now resides at St. Leonard’s House. “Now I’m not in a hurry to get a job, because of the other things I need to work on, like education and patience,” he said. “Once I get all that in place, a job will come, and I’ll be ready for it.”

Even if rushing into a job too soon isn’t an issue, a plethora of factors including housing, physical and mental health, family support, and peer pressure come into play, experts say.

Former prisoners who did not return to prison also tended to describe their neighborhoods as safe, according to the Urban Institute study. Many former prisoners, especially those returning to Chicago’s black neighborhoods, don’t have that luxury—most return to the city’s leading areas for crime, drug arrests and unemployment.

“If you’re surrounded by a bunch of drug dealing and crime, it’s harder for you to make a successful reintegration in the neighborhood,” said Christy Visher, principal research associate for the Urban Institute and co-author of the study.

Jones knows this first-hand. Being back with his old friends wasn’t helpful. “I had about a six-block radius that was my world,” he said. “I got love in the streets, and that’s basically what I was looking for. My guys were telling me: ‘You don’t have to work no job.'”

Some say life on the outside can even be too accommodating, allowing former prisoners to reject important responsibilities. Jones said he always stayed with family when he was released. He appreciated the support, but being with relatives had its drawbacks. “It was good, but it was bad, too,” he said. “They said, ‘Come home and don’t worry about anything,’ and it was too easy. I never learned to be on my own.”

Many advocates, scholars and even former prisoners themselves agree that a job won’t help someone released from prison if they don’t have the right attitude. Hardiman compared the hustler persona to a drug addiction—when some people are released, they have nothing on their minds but going right back to dealing drugs. And, Wetzel said, sometimes organizations will match former prisoners with jobs, only to have the new employee quit or get fired. He estimated that 80 percent to 90 percent will lose their jobs within a year.

For some, it may just take time for those attitudes to change. Former prisoners and advocates agree that older is wiser, and that maturity leads to less recidivism. “When a person gets older, he gets more experienced,” said Safer client Dwight Pharr, 48, who has been to prison six times on theft and burglary charges. “You come to the realization that life isn’t going to wait for you, and you’d better do something before it’s too late.”

Illinois Department of Corrections statistics show that individuals younger than 21 had a recidivism rate of 63 percent, the highest of all age groups. The oldest prisoners, ages 56 and older, went back 23 percent of the time, the lowest recidivism rate, the data show.

Jim Zangs, director of the Michael Barlow Center, a new St. Leonard’s-run facility with education and job-placement programs, said he’s seen three broad personality types in people returning home from prison. “Maybe 10 or 20 percent of ex-offenders are highly motivated, and they will succeed no matter what. Another 10 or 20 percent are still involved in their old lifestyles, and the opportunities you offer don’t make a difference,” he said. “But there’s a big group of people in the middle, who will make it with some help.”

Some advocates are taking stock of all these factors. The Rev. John H. Crawford Jr., president of Chicago’s FAITH Inc., said his organization supported legislation helping ex-offenders get state identification cards—not just to make finding employment easier, but to help with housing and other benefits as well. “Without ID, you can’t get access to the support you need,” he said.

Also, two recent federal initiatives seek a more holistic approach to preventing recidivism. The Prisoner Reentry Initiative and the Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative have $300 million and $100 million, respectively, to fund programs to assist people returning home from prison. One program focuses on nonviolent offenders, and the other for individuals who’ve committed more serious crimes.

Both initiatives will devote significant amounts of energy to factors other than employment. While the Prisoner Reentry Initiative is “employment-based,” it will incorporate “housing, mentoring, job training and other transitional services.” The Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative will concentrate on “education, job and life-skills training, and substance-abuse treatment,” according to government press releases.

The Illinois Department of Corrections has received $2 million from the Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative and used it to partner with service providers, including the North Lawndale Employment Network.

In addition, U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, whose 7th District includes much of Chicago’s West Side, where thousands of former prisoners return each year, has co-sponsored The Second Chance Act of 2005. It calls for $110 million over two years to various services and programs helping former prisoners. Under the proposal, $80 million would be earmarked for corrections departments in various states, while another $30 million would go directly to organizations providing the services.

A similar measure died in committee in 2004, but Davis thinks it would pass this year. The bill calls for money to help pay for housing, drug treatment, education, mental health, and mentoring, in addition to employment, but Davis didn’t see the current focus on jobs as problematic. “You can’t overemphasize employment,” he said.

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