When James Dawson was released from prison in 1999 after being locked up for 9½ years, he was determined to chart a new course. He tried several times to find steady employment to ensure crime was in his past, but nothing seemed to work.
“When I got back out, I went through the process of trying to find a job,” Dawson said. “Putting in applications here, going to certain places in St. Louis, but things just weren’t working out. I would put in applications, people would tell me, ‘Well, we’re going to look over your application and probably give you a call in the next week or so.’
“But they never did call, and I knew why.”
A former St. Louis resident, Dawson and his girlfriend moved to Columbia in 2001 to start over. His parole officer referred him to Pros and Cons for Everyone, a class at the Columbia Job Point Office that helps ex-felons and others learn job-seeking and job-retention skills.
Dawson took the course in early 2002, and it made all the difference. Summit Polymers hired him soon afterward, and he has worked there for nearly four years.
As the rate of offenders returning to prison continues to increase, Sue Long believes programs such as Pros and Cons for Everyone are critical to helping ex-felons enter the work force and get on the right track. That’s why Long and Dale Wolchko started the program about five years ago. Long said she got the idea while working as a legal secretary.
“It was because of my experiences with people in prison that I saw the need for such a thing,” Long said.
Long teaches the one-week course twice a month, showing participants the best places to look for jobs, how to fill out applications, how to present themselves during job interviews, and most important, how to keep jobs once they’ve been hired.
Although the program is open to anyone, most who take it are ex-offenders. According to Job Point, 350 to 500 people finish the course each year. Last year, it had a 63 percent success rate, Job Point marketing and research director Brenda Overkamp said. To be considered a success, the participant must keep a job for at least 90 days.
In the classroom, Long insists her charges believe that with a great attitude and some persistence, they can each find gainful employment.
The odds are good that they’ll do just that once they’ve spent time with Long. During a recent Pros and Cons session, three students sitting upright around a conference table listened intently as Long pumped them up and prepared them for the formidable task ahead.
“You are terrific,” she tells them. “Don’t let anyone tell you that you are not good enough.”
State of change
Pros and Cons for Everyone isn’t the only program designed to address the issue of a growing recidivism rate.
The Missouri Department of Corrections, citing a recidivism rate of 39 percent among felons released from state prisons, recently implemented a program called the Missouri Reentry Process that’s intended to ease offenders’ transitions from prison to the community.
Julie Boehm, manager of the Missouri Reentry Program, said the new system will benefit both offenders and the corrections agency.
“It is a new philosophical change in the way the Department of Corrections does business,” she said.
Boehm said the department was one of two chosen by the National Institute of Corrections to adopt a model called the Transition from Prison to Community in order to combat recidivism. The new model requires collaboration between community organizations, state departments and even victims of the offender, to smooth the reintegration of ex-offenders.
On Sept. 21, Gov. Matt Blunt signed an executive order directing the Department of Corrections to lead the Missouri Reentry Process.
With 15,000 offenders rejoining the community each year, Boehm said it is crucial that Missouri reduce the number of ex-offenders returning to prison. Under the new program, the department will try to equip offenders — from the time of they walk into prison all the way through their release — with the skills necessary to make a successful transition from prison to the community. It will ensure each offender gets his general education equivalency diploma, Social Security cards, birth certificates and state identification cards, Boehm said. Offenders will also be treated for any drug-abuse or mental-health problems. After inmates are released, the program will help them find reliable transportation, housing, employment references and other support services.
“Changing the way corrections works by partnering with communities and other state agencies is good government and long overdue,” Boehm said.
Long is confident the Missouri Reentry Process, coupled with existing programs such as Pros and Cons for Everyone, will boost the success rate of ex-offenders looking for employment.
“I am a firm believer in ‘You give a man a fish, you feed him once. You teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime,’” she said.
Risk and reward
For some, however, Pros and Cons and the Missouri Reentry Process come too late. Columbia resident Rodney Kemp, who was imprisoned in 1992 for selling drugs, repeatedly tried to find jobs after he was released, but to no avail.
Frustrated, Kemp decided to start his own business. With money borrowed from friends, he opened a record store, Mo Music, in 2002. Though he is earning money now, he remains bitter about the trouble he and others have returning to the work force.
“That’s what a lot of us people go through getting out of the penitentiary, and that’s what leads back to a life of crime,” Kemp said. “If you don’t give people a second chance, what do you expect them to do?”
Kemp decried the unfairness of a society that expects ex-offenders to turn their lives around yet gives them limited opportunities to earn money and do so. He said the Department of Corrections can do all it wants, but those coming out of prison will continue to have trouble if no one is willing to take a chance on them.
That’s why a component of the Missouri Reentry Process will involve teaching business owners about the rewards that hiring ex-offenders brings to them and their communities.
“We will send out fliers to businesses that advise (them) of the benefits of hiring ex-offenders,” she said.
Those benefits include a Work Opportunity Tax Credit of up to $2,400 for each ex-offender hired and participation in the Federal Bonding Program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor, which protects businesses from liability if a hired ex-offender commits steals, embezzles or commits forgery.
Dawson said businesses in Columbia, compared to those in St. Louis, were more willing to give him a chance and did not automatically reject his application because of his criminal background. Many times, he said, success depends on patience and the attitude of the ex-felon.
“If you have motivation, there are people out there who will give you work,” he said. “Regardless of whatever type of job you do, if you are willing to do what you have to do for that moment to get through that, better things will come.”
Long agreed that each person is key to their own success.
“If a person wants to be successful, they almost always are,” she said.