Re-entering society after a stretch in prison can be challenging. There’s the public stigma of being an offender and the emotional effects of joining a community that may or may not accept you. Former inmates need to start a new life, and that’s usually hindered with some major disadvantages, like lack of employment, for example.
“The first two weeks are often the most difficult time for offenders because they don’t have ID cards, employment, medical coverage, housing, food, nutrition, etc.,” said State Re-Entry Coordinator, Rich Martinez. “If they don’t have a good support system or plan in place they are more likely to re-offend.”
There are currently more than 46,000 men and women incarcerated in Arizona. Of those, 92% will remain in Arizona once they have completed their sentences. In an effort to create safer communities, Governor Ducey has empowered state agencies to connect ex-offenders to resources to help them to live successful, crime-free lives. Helping former inmates get jobs, and keeping them gainfully employed, goes a long way toward reducing the recidivism rate.
The Arizona Department of Economic Security (DES) has partnered with the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADOC) to fulfill the Governor’s initiative, by connecting individuals with a criminal backgrounds to employment.
Beginning this month, employment specialists from the DES Division of Employment and Rehabilitation Services (DERS) will be stationed--full-time--inside three Arizona state prisons to help inmates within 90-days of release prepare to enter the workforce. Employment specialists will organize on-site job fairs to connect inmates directly to background-friendly employers, but not before they have helped them to become work-ready.
“Employment rates and earnings histories of people in prisons and jails are often low before incarceration as a result of limited education experiences, low skill levels, and the prevalence of physical and mental health problems; incarceration only exacerbates these challenges,” said Tasha Aikens, Re-entry & Law Enforcement Community Coordinator for the U.S. Department of Justice.
Employment specialists will offer workshops that focus on résumé writing, interview techniques, how to dress professionally (including how to access free or affordable professional clothing), how to explain convictions to an employer, and even offer tips for covering up tattoos.
Employment specialists will also teach inmates about programs that can help them get hired. Federal Bonds and Work Opportunity Tax Credits (WOTC) are available through DES to encourage employers to take the leap and offer an ex-offender employment.
Martinez says ex-offenders will often rely on referrals from friends or previous employers for work. Other times they will take--in his words--“just about anything they can get their hands on.” DERS employment specialists can offer them apprenticeship programs, career training, and other qualifying programs to find employment.
To give DERS staff members an idea of what a released inmate might be experiencing, Aikens puts them through a “re-entry simulation.”
“The simulation is used to educate and bring awareness to criminal justice practitioners and criminal justice stakeholders on the many challenges and barriers an inmate faces within the first 30 days of his or her release,” explained Aikens.
Simulation participants play the role of an ex-offender on a mission to succeed in “the real world.” It doesn’t take long for them to realize the cards seem to be stacked against them. Many participants find themselves broke, with no source of income, I.D. or housing. Lucky simulation participants get “jobs” which provide them some income to help them manage the instantaneous need to pay for basic needs like food and shelter, support a family, and pay any restitution fees that might be associated with their crimes.
Employment specialists have been providing workforce services to this demographic in local offices for some time. Now, after completing a successful pilot project of providing employment services to inmates prior to release, the team is ready and eager to officially offer their expertise inside ADOC facilities.
“The key is to educate them [inmates] of the services that are available to them and to empower them to ask for the DES employment services that they are eligible for,” added Martinez.
For more information about the DERS Re-Entry program, or for workforce services, please visit our Employment Service web page or come see us at an ARIZONA@WORK office near you.
By Jillian Seamans