The Ex-Con Next Door

How communities are preparing for the largest exodus of prisoners in American history

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Jesse Howes looks in on inmates soon to be released from the El Dorado Correctional facility in Kansas.

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Long shot. Lonnie K., 50, is so anxious to leave Winfield that he keeps his release papers and a citation for good behavior folded in his prison-issue jacket. He hopes to get into a truck-driving school, but he knows it may be a long shot. He's been out a few times before, only to land back in prison after arrests for theft. "I won't even have clothes when I get out," Lonnie says. Howes makes a note to find some threads from the Salvation Army and to set up job interviews for Lonnie. He tries to steer his charges away from low-paying food service or retail jobs. "Unless you can earn a living wage [more than $12 an hour]," Howes says, "you're not going to make it."

Providing free services to murderers and thieves might seem like coddling, but statistics show it's the cheapest and most effective way to keep the public safe. If they can keep just one of the prisoners enrolled in the aircraft sheet metal class out of prison for six months, Wichita officials say, they will save the state money. That's why re-entry programs have made for some unlikely political alliances, including, in Kansas, between conservative Sen. Sam Brownback and Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. Brownback has sponsored the federal Second Chance Act, which would provide ex-cons with millions of dollars in job training, housing vouchers, and other services. And Sebelius has made helping ex-prisoners a top priority.

In Virginia, meanwhile, YMCAs are working with female offenders and their children. Families are critical to re-entry because they can be both the cause of or the solution to recidivism. Programs in Georgia, supported by a $2 million federal grant, provide job training and mental health services for juvenile offenders. And similarly funded programs in Pennsylvania target offenders 14 to 35 years old.

Holding a job remains the best predictor of success for ex-cons, and employer surveys have found about 80 percent of ex-cons to be diligent, trustworthy, and dependable. Yet employers are still reluctant to hire them. They risk having employees who can be at worst violent and at best antisocial and reap few benefits in return. Employers are eligible for tax credits, and the federal government does bond former inmates up to a few thousand dollars, but small businesses often find the paperwork more trouble than it's worth.

"This is not a question of one kind employer giving a second chance to an ex-con; this is a nationwide problem," says Devah Pager, a professor at Princeton University and author of Marked: Race, Crime, and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration. In studies in New York and Milwaukee, Pager found that employers were half as likely to call applicants with criminal records and even less likely to call them if they were also black.

Marc Lascano, the Austin operations director for a Texas car repair chain, is an exception to that attitude. His Brake Check has hired more than 75 ex-cons in the past five years. More than 80 percent of them have stayed for at least a year, and several have gone into management. "They are disciplined because they are used to following instructions within the corrections system," Lascano says.

The ex-offenders are trained with funds from a state program that has paired thousands of ex-cons with employers. Since 2000, Project RIO (for Reintegration of Offenders) has kept about 40 percent of those who enter the program employed, compared with 24 percent for those who don't enroll. And the recidivism rate for RIO participants was one fifth of that among those who did not participate.

Some states, including New York, have laws restricting employers from considering of criminal records in hiring, but many others do not. Ex-cons are further handicapped because employers can now easily gain access to criminal offender databases when they are performing background checks. The Army, for example, found that more than 8,000 of its new recruits last year had criminal histories. It granted them waivers, but other professions are off limits to ex-cons—teaching and child-care work, of course, but also embalming, limousine driving, firefighting, and haircutting.