Employment Empowerment

10/04/2017
Pablo Gaxiola spent 15 years in prison. Upon release three years ago, he was invited to a job workshop, which he admits to attending with just the smallest bit of hope that something could change. After an initial assessment and orientation he was in fact given a job as an administrative clerk, utilizing experience and skills he learned while in prison.

From that role, he was able to fill an open position as peer mentor, and recently has been promoted to placement coordinator—a job that helps others like himself find employment. He reports that while life isn’t perfect: “I am confident, self-aware, capable, and most of all, overcome with hope that the future I once feared, is now filled with promise.”

Gaxiola is part of Goodwill of Silicon Valley’s New Opportunity Work (NOW) program, one of a small but growing number of programs that help those with criminal records gain employment. Now celebrating 115 years, Goodwill Industries International Inc. states that it has helped over 217,000 people get back to work this year.
 
Background
The fact is that about 70 million people in the U.S. have some sort of criminal record, and nearly 700,000 return to communities annually after being released from jail or prison.

They will all need jobs. Studies have shown that post-release employment has a significant impact on recidivism rates.  At the same time, the higher level of formal education they attain, the greater the prospects of employment at sustainable wages.
 
According to a recent RAND Corporation study called Evaluating the Effectiveness of Correctional Education, “The odds of obtaining employment post-release among inmates who participated in either academic or vocational correctional education was 13 percent higher than the odds for those who did not participate.” Backing those figures, it found that inmates who had no correctional training had a 43% chance of recidivating, while for those who had such education the recidivism number dropped to 30%. In addition, the study found that “those who participated in vocational training were 28 percent more likely to be employed after release from prison than those who did not receive such training.”
 
However, one of the biggest obstacles for those who were convicted—even if they have changed—is to overcome the stigma of a criminal record with prospective employers. Those hiring admittedly report that they fear negligent hiring liability, workplace violence, theft, or bad publicity if they hire a worker with a criminal history. They often overlook rehabilitation of the offender, the length of time since the last arrest and higher education and/or certificates earned, notes a 2014 article on the webzine Bloomberg BNA.
 
A movement that has been gaining momentum since 2010 that can help exoffenders land a job is the “ban-the-box” policy, a reference to a question on job applications that asks the applicant if they have a criminal record. Nationwide, over 150 cities and counties have adopted ban-the-box legislation so that employers consider a job candidate’s qualifications first, without the stigma of a criminal record, states an August 2017 report by the National Employment Law Project (NELP). The advocacy organization explains that the new laws generally allow employers to ask about a job applicant’s criminal record late in the hiring process, such as during the interview or after a job offer is made, delaying exposing the individual and perhaps giving them the opportunity to show who they are and what skills they possess.
 
To date, a total of 29 states representing nearly every region of the country have adopted the policies, NELP details, and nine states have removed the conviction history question on job applications for private employers, which advocates embrace as the next step in the evolution of these policies.
 
Moving Forward
Treatment offers offenders a second chance. One such type of treatment with proven results is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or C.B.T. In essence it teaches people to restructure how they think about problems. Within the general population it has been shown to help people reduce their fears or manage their pain. It can also offer assistance to ex-offenders to make improvements in behaviors responsible for the troubles in their lives and conceivably sustain their employment.
 
An example is Advent eLearning, a cloud-based platform presented with a full portfolio of online evidence-based, education programs using CBT curricula to address misdemeanor offenses and criminal justice agency treatment needs. Aimed at low- to mid-level offenders, its programs are offered in areas such as anger management, bullying, conflict resolution and DUI. This past August Adventfs released a five-year study of rearrest data for offenders undergoing online C.B.T. treatment as part of misdemeanor diversions in Kentucky. It was developed by examining public arrest records of offenders who had taken the courses as part of prosecutor diversions of misdemeanor alcohol, assault, drug, and theft charges.
 
Findings of the study are:
 
•          Of those who took the Advent eLearning courses as part of a prosecutor diversion program, the three-year rearrest rate was 31.6%
•          In contrast, the Kentucky Department of Corrections (KY DOC) reports a three-year rearrest rate of 46.4% when the same types of offenses are queried from their online recidivism database (http://apps.corrections.ky.gov/Recidivism/SearchRecidivismData).
•          Likewise, offenders taking an Advent eLearning course had a two-year rearrest rate of 25.7% compared to a published two-year rearrest rate by KY DOC of 37.2% (KY DOC, 2015).

The comparison mostly focuses on first-time offenders who were given a chance to divert via an online course versus others who were incarcerated for similar offenses, points out Josh Hartlage, Adventfs, president.
 
“The premise behind diversion programs is that you're giving minor offenders who pose little threat to society an opportunity for online treatment using principles of cognitive-behavioral therapy instead of jailing them. So diverted offenders are literally learning from their mistakes,” he emphasizes.
 
Incarceration as an alternative to diversion, he continues, is not only less effective in changing behaviors, but it is likely negatively-instructive by placing young offenders together with their more savvy criminal peers. Therefore, says Hartlage, “diversions aren't just good economic policy to ease jail overcrowding, they're good social policy for lowering criminality overall.”
 
Education: A Ticket To Freedom
RAND Corporation has done a series of research papers on the effects of education on recidivism. One of their major contributors, Lois M. Davis, Ph.D., senior policy researcher, and professor, Pardee RAND Graduate School, notes: “Those who participated in postsecondary education programs in prison had a recidivism rate that was more than 50% lower than those who did not participate in such correctional education programs.”
The Department of Justice reports that 76.6% of inmates return to prison within five years, points out Dr. Turner Nashe, senior vice president of Education Services at GTL, but attaining an educational degree enormously lowers the recidivism rate:
 
• Associate degree holders return at a rate of 13.7%.
• Bachelor’s degree holders return at a rate of 5.6%.
• Master’s degree holders return at a rate of nearly 0%.
 
GTL, for its part, seeks to educate inmates within the walls of correctional facilities while eliminating the need to transfer inmates to a campus or computer lab to complete coursework. Its tablet-based education, known as the Inspire inmate tablet, is offered to inmates in a variety of content areas, and is reported to be engaging for the “digital native” population and also approachable for those who are not yet digital natives.
 
Tablets enable facilities to offer more educational programs to more inmates than a traditional classroom setting allows.  Inmates can learn at their own pace in this flexible format, explains Dr. Nashe. From educational packages that focus on foundational skills to options for inmates looking to obtain higher education degrees, GTL’s education solution provides 65,000 pieces of credentialed content from major education content providers. These include self-help courses; practice exercises; 7,000 instructional videos; and a personalized learning dashboard, all available on a secure platform and a hardened tablet.
 
Learning Management System (LMS) course areas, which consist of courses, videos and eBooks, are offered in GED, life skills/C.B.T, vocational training, business and leadership and computer literacy/IT skills, and others.  Inspire program certifications include: Administrative Medical Assisting, Janitorial and Athletics (e.g., Certified Personal Trainer). Inmates can also engage in entrepreneurial courses.
 
A Documents Application is now available on the Inspire tablet. This allows a facility to broadcast PDF documents, so they can post educational documents, manuals, job postings, etc.; inmates can access them via their tablets through the facility’s Intranet server. Early next year, GTL plans to add an Alcoholics Anonymous app—which will provide free access for inmates to continue their AA journey towards recovery.
Also in the works, GTL will be partnering with various organizations to provide support for ex-offenders as they seek job placement. It will include access to tips, information and resources to help search for, apply for, and begin a new job. Finally, the delivery system provides post release resources such as housing, food and medical care, finding legal assistance and getting a driver’s license.
 
Brian Hill, CEO of Edovo, a firm that supplies tablet technology to incarcerated individuals, echoes the educational aspect of the RAND study above, and notes his firm has collaborated with the independent research firm on a long-term re-entry research project. He says: "Education and communication with loved ones has been shown to decrease recidivism among returning citizens, but these opportunities are limited for the average prisoner. The main daily program for the typical incarcerated person is daytime television. With a set of people with nothing but time on their hands and the motivation to make changes in their lives, we are failing as a society at giving them resources to make those changes.”
 
Edovo is also a secure digital learning platform hosted on tablets. Its educational suite for jails and prisons includes over 10,000 hours of academic, vocation and social-emotional learning courses and tools for inmates to work through at their own pace. Inmates can request certificates and transcripts of their work to show to courts and loved ones. Students also have the option to continue the program after they’re released.
 
Edovo works on a learn-and-earn model, where users earn points by completing courses and spend those points on entertainment content. This model keeps users motivated and engaged and helps them make the best of their time on the inside, notes Gina Grant, Edovo’s director of content.
 
While some feel that inmates who traditionally have a low level of formal education, are uninterested in learning, to the contrary, "There’s a thirst for knowledge across the board, and facilities are reporting more peaceful environments since adopting Edovo,” in the view of David Northridge, senior vice president, who handles measuring metrics and impact for Edovo. He says feedback from the field reveals that 80% of users are working on the platform on a weekly basis, finishing about two lessons per day. The more engaged inmates are, the faster their rehabilitations, he furthers. “Today, we have nearly 9,000 users in 39 facilities in 17 states, and that impact is constantly growing."
 
Help Wanted
The government and many nonprofits offer assistance to ex-offenders seeking jobs. On the federal level, the National Institute of Corrections’ Community Services Division coordinates the efforts of federal, state, local, and nonprofit agencies to improve employment programs for offenders and ex-offenders. They collect and disseminate information on offender employment programs and provide training for staff that provides employment services to offenders and ex-offenders, among other services (see  https://nicic.gov/owd).
 
Another strong support, the non-profit public interest organization known as the Legal Action Center says its mission is to fight discrimination against people with histories of addiction, HIV/AIDS, or criminal records, and advocate for sound public policies in these areas. Its National H.I.R.E. Network (Helping Individuals with criminal records Re-enter through Employment), established in 2001, is a clearinghouse of information that provides training and technical assistance to agencies working to improve the employment prospects of people with criminal records. It also promotes research that strengthens workforce development and works to improve correctional policies and programs to provide more educational opportunities, better job preparation and skills training, and better transitional services.
 
Among the many resources on its web site are local service providers in every state, including The Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO), a New York program that offers rigorous pre-employment training, short-term work crew experience, and long-term job development services to prepare clients with criminal records entering permanent employment.
Jobview, LLC, is a custom computer programming service that has developed, deployed and operated hundreds of employment kiosks in markets nationwide since 1995. These kiosks provide job seekers, including offenders and ex-offenders, with thousands of current, local and nationwide employment opportunities. The kiosks, called 2nd Chance in the corrections market, are offered in both secure and Internet versions.
 
Provided turnkey, the devices provide employment aid to inmates by granting access to thousands of local and nationwide jobs. The user can scroll through 2 million listings from all 50 states through a single interface that organizes the various job opportunities from many different sources into 31 specific job related categories.
 
2nd Chance kiosks are deployed in state and federal correctional facilities; the Federal Bureau of Prisons gave their approval for use in 2009.
 
A job seeker using a 2nd Chance Kiosk will initially be presented with access to jobs in the state.  The job seeker would select the city of interest and have instant access to the jobs currently listed in that area. The job seeker can then view and print jobs in that city, and likewise any city they target. If the individual is still serving time, their counselor can help them apply via the supplied URL; if an ex-offender is using the Jobview services in a halfway house or parole facility they can apply for the job directly from the kiosk or workstation.
 
Today Jobview software and kiosks are functioning in 35 federal prisons and 50 Texas jails, release centers and parole offices.  Thousands of offenders and ex- offenders are being served on a daily basis, notes company president Bob Bro. Jobview helps ease the crucial transition period, giving reentry users a 30-60 day head start on finding a job.
 
Making a big splash upon its launch in 2010, The Next Step, Inc. (wwwthenextstep99.com) brings together recently released felons looking for work, the agencies that supervise them and felon-friendly employers willing to take a chance to give them a fresh start. That year, the company was recognized by the Kansas Small Business Development Center as a 2010 Emerging Business, and since then its job data base, CoFFE!, is used “by dozens of federal and state agencies with hundreds of releasees employed monthly through the leads it provides.” CoFFE!, which stands for the Cooperative of Felon Friendly Employers, has been recognized by some of the most prominent people in the transition field and is offered free to participating agencies and residents.
 
The company gets paid when the employer that hires the individual places them in a job and contacts The Next Step to help them get the federal Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC) tax credit. The credit varies from $1,200 to $9,600 depending on the employee hired, according to the Department of Labor. As of now, the law is in effect from January 1, 2015 through the end of 2019.
 
While change is slow to occur, some employers are stepping up to the plate and taking a chance on ex-offenders, according to the advocacy organization NELP. At an event this past summer in Oakland for employers to discuss reentry issues and fair employment opportunities, one business owner spoke to the personal benefit he finds from hiring people with records.
 
“I’ve seen how a job makes all the difference,” says Derreck B. Johnson, founder and president of Home of Chicken and Waffles in Oakland. “When I give someone a chance and he becomes my best employee, I know that I’m doing right by my community.”