Beyond the Chain Gang

American Outlook, Spring 2001

by Edmund McGarrell

ABSTRACT

Can you recall the last time you stopped in a fast food restaurant or convenience store and did not see a “help wanted” poster in the window? Despite the fluctuations in unemployment statistics, the entire country is realizing what human resource managers and small business owners have known for some time—America’s labor shortage is real. As the Hudson Institute’s Workforce 2020 clearly demonstrated, this is not a temporary phenomenon but rather a structural characteristic the nation will face for decades. The combination of an aging population, the impending retirements of the huge Baby Boom generation, and a growing economy ensure tight labor markets for the foreseeable future.

While unemployment has dropped, however, the nation’s prison populations have grown rapidly in the last two decades. In 1980, state and federal prisons in the United States held approximately 320,000 inmates. By 1999 this figure had increased to nearly 1.3 million. An additional 600,000 individuals are held in local jails. (For more information on U.S. prison populations, see www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs) Most of these inmates will serve short sentences—with 97 percent of the inmates returning to the community at some point. In fact, of the entire prison population in state facilities, 40 percent of all inmates will be released during the current year. Of those released, the average (median) time served is fifteen months.

In 1990, slightly more than 400,000 inmates were released from state and federal prisons. During 2000 that number increased to approximately 600,000, according to the latest available estimates.

The increasing number of inmates returning to the community creates a significant public safety risk. Historically, two-thirds of all released inmates commit another crime within three years. Former inmates have been shown to be at substantial risk of involvement in violence either as perpetrators or victims. Many of these inmates are chronic offenders for whom the particular offense that sent them to prison was just one of many. Former inmates tend to return to their former neighborhoods, and in many urban centers they concentrate in a small number of areas. Thus for many communities the large number of returning inmates poses a definite threat to public safety.

Most inmates have poor educational backgrounds, limited work experience, and few skills. An estimated 60 to 80 percent have had drug or alcohol problems. Thus, they not only face the same challenges as any low-skilled job seeker but also carry the stigma of being an ex-convict and possessing an interrupted, if not nonexistent, work history. Many also face strained family relationships and difficulties in finding housing.

Prisoners Motivated

Despite these problems, research indicates that at the time of release from prison, most inmates want to succeed in a legitimate lifestyle. Criminologists have found that chronic offenders who desist from offending tend to do so at crucial turning points in their lives, such as when they secure gainful employment or get married. Although public policy has a limited influence on an individual’s prospects for marriage (beyond removing disincentives), good public policies can help former inmates make their way into the workforce. Most inmates will be released under the supervision of a parole or probation agency, many of which provide help in obtaining education, employment, and drug and alcohol treatments. For employers, the placement of former inmates under supervision can provide reassurance that there is an ally to call should problems arise.

Since the Depression era, most states have set limits on the use of prison labor, and even during periods of modest unemployment, correctional officials have had a difficult time selling the public on specialized job preparation and placement programs for inmates. When law-abiding citizens are standing in unemployment lines, few people care to pay for special efforts to help lawbreakers enter the workforce. In a full- employment economy, however, those objections fade, and people who have long been seen as a problem may now be viewed as a resource.

The numbers are not trivial. Inmates released from prison represent more than half a million potential workers becoming available each year. The numbers range from 500 in North Dakota to over 100,000 in California. In most states, approximately 3,000 to 10,000 former inmates are released each year. Given the large numbers of prisoners released each year, anything that could significantly reduce the two-thirds of former inmates who reoffend would generate both safer streets and serious fiscal savings. A study using 1991 national data found that the nation’s 156,000 parole violators committed 46,000 violent crimes, 45,000 property crimes, 24,000 drug offenses, and 9,000 other crimes in that year. A mere 10 percent reduction in reoffending would have meant 680 fewer murders, more than 2,200 fewer robberies, 550 fewer rapes, and significant reductions in assaults, burglaries, and car thefts.

A conservative estimate of the total saving in social costs—lost productivity, medical and mental health care, property loss, and lost quality of life—would be

$ 2,078,318,000. Moreover, these savings represent the costs associated only with the offense that landed the parolee back in prison. But, most offenders commit a large number of crimes for each one that results in arrest, conviction, and incarceration. Taking these additional offenses into account would magnify the estimated savings considerably. In addition to these costs to crime victims and communities, reducing the number of former inmates returning to prison would generate significant savings in prison expenditures. In 1998, more than 200,000 parole violators were returned to prison. Assuming that they serve an average of twelve months (one study found a median of twenty-eight months expected time served for parole violators), a ten percent reduction in the number of parolees returned to prison would save more than $800 million in prison costs. Each successive ten percent reduction would generate additional savings of this magnitude.

Employers Doubtful

When faced with a surplus of low-skilled labor, however, many employers have been unwilling to take a chance on convicted felons. The tightened labor market may change this dynamic, but there has been very little research on employers’ attitudes toward hiring former inmates or about former inmates’ success in the labor market. A recent survey of employers conducted by the ERISS Corporation with Hudson Institute’s Workforce Policy Center asked more than 10,000 Chicago-area employers whether they were willing to hire former inmates. Twenty-two percent of the employers said that they were willing to do so. That number represents 2,200 employers in the Chicago area alone. Interestingly, only 17 percent of the employers said that they would not hire former inmates. Most said that they did not know whether they would do so, which probably means that they had not thought about the issue or that their response would depend on the nature of the job and the type of offender. Thus, the ERISS survey, if reflective of employers nationally, suggests that although employers may not be knocking at prisons’ doors in search of new workers, they are not categorically opposed to the idea of hiring former inmates.

Several pilot efforts suggest that former inmates can be successfully moved into the workforce. (See P. Finn, “Job Placement for Offenders,” National Institute of Justice Journal, July 1999 and related sites at www.ojp.usdoj.gov/nij.) Texas has been a leader in these efforts through two related initiatives: Project RIO (reintegration of offenders) and Re-Enterprise. Project RIO, initiated as a two-city pilot project in 1985, begins while the inmate is still in prison, and provides transition preparation such as “life skills” training, job readiness counseling, and helping the inmate assemble documents (such as Social Security number and driver’s license) necessary for job applications. By bringing together the state’s department of correction and its workforce commission, RIO gives former inmates access to job placement services throughout the state and provides them access to employment specialists who help them obtain housing, clothing, and drug treatment.

Re-Enterprise, which began in 1993, involves collaboration with private employers through job fairs held in prisons. Employers come to the job fairs and conduct mock interviews with inmates. Employers are under no obligation to hire inmates, but they do have the opportunity to meet soon-to-be-released prisoners and assess whether they may be worthy job candidates. For inmates, the fairs provide an opportunity to go through the job interview process and to learn about potential jobs and employers. The number of participating employers has increased from nine to three hundred in just four years. A unique feature of the Texas program is its accountability measures whereby the local workforce offices are held accountable for their success in placing and retaining former inmates in jobs.

The Texas program provides job placement services to more than sixteen thousand parolees annually; more than twelve thousand employers hired parolees through the program. Parolees participating in RIO are much more likely to be employed than their non-participating peers, and an evaluation of the program found a significant reduction in the reincarceration rate of high-risk parolees. A 1990 assessment indicated that the $8 million budget for the program was generating $15 million in reduced incarceration costs.

Nonprofits Helpful

Many transitional programs rely on partnerships with not-for-profit community organizations. The Safer Foundation in Chicago and the Center for Employment Opportunities in New York City provide support services for former inmates, focusing on job placement. The Ten Point Coalition in Indianapolis, Jobs Partnership in Raleigh, and the Transition of Prisoners program in Detroit combine a spiritual approach, individual mentorship, and job placement, helping inmates through the re-entry process.

Many of these programs, following lessons learned in the welfare reform movement, take a “stepping stone” approach to employment, hoping that success at an initial job will lead to higher-paying positions down the road. This promise can be crucial in overcoming the skepticism of many former inmates about whether they will ever be able to secure a job providing livable wages. The stepping stone approach can also help convince employers to take a chance on former inmates.

An even more comprehensive strategy involves linking work in the prison to employer needs in the community. In Minnesota, for example, the state’s department of correction is working with the department of economic security to identify private sector labor needs and then provide appropriate training and experience to inmates through the prison’s industry program. Other states have created similar partnerships with private employers. In South Carolina, a prison industry program involving cable assembly received an award from IBM for high product quality. In California, inmates schedule itineraries for TWA, and many have secured employment with the firm following release.

Can you recall the last time you stopped in a fast food restaurant or convenience store and did not see a “help wanted” poster in the window? Despite the fluctuations in unemployment statistics, the entire country is realizing what human resource managers and small business owners have known for some time—America’s labor shortage is real. As the Hudson Institute’s Workforce 2020 clearly demonstrated, this is not a temporary phenomenon but rather a structural characteristic the nation will face for decades. The combination of an aging population, the impending retirements of the huge Baby Boom generation, and a growing economy ensure tight labor markets for the foreseeable future.

While unemployment has dropped, however, the nation’s prison populations have grown rapidly in the last two decades. In 1980, state and federal prisons in the United States held approximately 320,000 inmates. By 1999 this figure had increased to nearly 1.3 million. An additional 600,000 individuals are held in local jails. (For more information on U.S. prison populations, see www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs) Most of these inmates will serve short sentences—with 97 percent of the inmates returning to the community at some point. In fact, of the entire prison population in state facilities, 40 percent of all inmates will be released during the current year. Of those released, the average (median) time served is fifteen months.

In 1990, slightly more than 400,000 inmates were released from state and federal prisons. During 2000 that number increased to approximately 600,000, according to the latest available estimates.

The increasing number of inmates returning to the community creates a significant public safety risk. Historically, two-thirds of all released inmates commit another crime within three years. Former inmates have been shown to be at substantial risk of involvement in violence either as perpetrators or victims. Many of these inmates are chronic offenders for whom the particular offense that sent them to prison was just one of many. Former inmates tend to return to their former neighborhoods, and in many urban centers they concentrate in a small number of areas. Thus for many communities the large number of returning inmates poses a definite threat to public safety.

Most inmates have poor educational backgrounds, limited work experience, and few skills. An estimated 60 to 80 percent have had drug or alcohol problems. Thus, they not only face the same challenges as any low-skilled job seeker but also carry the stigma of being an ex-convict and possessing an interrupted, if not nonexistent, work history. Many also face strained family relationships and difficulties in finding housing.

Prisoners Motivated

Despite these problems, research indicates that at the time of release from prison, most inmates want to succeed in a legitimate lifestyle. Criminologists have found that chronic offenders who desist from offending tend to do so at crucial turning points in their lives, such as when they secure gainful employment or get married. Although public policy has a limited influence on an individual’s prospects for marriage (beyond removing disincentives), good public policies can help former inmates make their way into the workforce. Most inmates will be released under the supervision of a parole or probation agency, many of which provide help in obtaining education, employment, and drug and alcohol treatments. For employers, the placement of former inmates under supervision can provide reassurance that there is an ally to call should problems arise.

Since the Depression era, most states have set limits on the use of prison labor, and even during periods of modest unemployment, correctional officials have had a difficult time selling the public on specialized job preparation and placement programs for inmates. When law-abiding citizens are standing in unemployment lines, few people care to pay for special efforts to help lawbreakers enter the workforce. In a full- employment economy, however, those objections fade, and people who have long been seen as a problem may now be viewed as a resource.

The numbers are not trivial. Inmates released from prison represent more than half a million potential workers becoming available each year. The numbers range from 500 in North Dakota to over 100,000 in California. In most states, approximately 3,000 to 10,000 former inmates are released each year. Given the large numbers of prisoners released each year, anything that could significantly reduce the two-thirds of former inmates who reoffend would generate both safer streets and serious fiscal savings. A study using 1991 national data found that the nation’s 156,000 parole violators committed 46,000 violent crimes, 45,000 property crimes, 24,000 drug offenses, and 9,000 other crimes in that year. A mere 10 percent reduction in reoffending would have meant 680 fewer murders, more than 2,200 fewer robberies, 550 fewer rapes, and significant reductions in assaults, burglaries, and car thefts.

A conservative estimate of the total saving in social costs—lost productivity, medical and mental health care, property loss, and lost quality of life—would be

$ 2,078,318,000. Moreover, these savings represent the costs associated only with the offense that landed the parolee back in prison. But, most offenders commit a large number of crimes for each one that results in arrest, conviction, and incarceration. Taking these additional offenses into account would magnify the estimated savings considerably. In addition to these costs to crime victims and communities, reducing the number of former inmates returning to prison would generate significant savings in prison expenditures. In 1998, more than 200,000 parole violators were returned to prison. Assuming that they serve an average of twelve months (one study found a median of twenty-eight months expected time served for parole violators), a ten percent reduction in the number of parolees returned to prison would save more than $800 million in prison costs. Each successive ten percent reduction would generate additional savings of this magnitude.

Employers Doubtful

When faced with a surplus of low-skilled labor, however, many employers have been unwilling to take a chance on convicted felons. The tightened labor market may change this dynamic, but there has been very little research on employers’ attitudes toward hiring former inmates or about former inmates’ success in the labor market. A recent survey of employers conducted by the ERISS Corporation with Hudson Institute’s Workforce Policy Center asked more than 10,000 Chicago-area employers whether they were willing to hire former inmates. Twenty-two percent of the employers said that they were willing to do so. That number represents 2,200 employers in the Chicago area alone. Interestingly, only 17 percent of the employers said that they would not hire former inmates. Most said that they did not know whether they would do so, which probably means that they had not thought about the issue or that their response would depend on the nature of the job and the type of offender. Thus, the ERISS survey, if reflective of employers nationally, suggests that although employers may not be knocking at prisons’ doors in search of new workers, they are not categorically opposed to the idea of hiring former inmates.

Several pilot efforts suggest that former inmates can be successfully moved into the workforce. (See P. Finn, “Job Placement for Offenders,” National Institute of Justice Journal, July 1999 and related sites at www.ojp.usdoj.gov/nij.) Texas has been a leader in these efforts through two related initiatives: Project RIO (reintegration of offenders) and Re-Enterprise. Project RIO, initiated as a two-city pilot project in 1985, begins while the inmate is still in prison, and provides transition preparation such as “life skills” training, job readiness counseling, and helping the inmate assemble documents (such as Social Security number and driver’s license) necessary for job applications. By bringing together the state’s department of correction and its workforce commission, RIO gives former inmates access to job placement services throughout the state and provides them access to employment specialists who help them obtain housing, clothing, and drug treatment.

Re-Enterprise, which began in 1993, involves collaboration with private employers through job fairs held in prisons. Employers come to the job fairs and conduct mock interviews with inmates. Employers are under no obligation to hire inmates, but they do have the opportunity to meet soon-to-be-released prisoners and assess whether they may be worthy job candidates. For inmates, the fairs provide an opportunity to go through the job interview process and to learn about potential jobs and employers. The number of participating employers has increased from nine to three hundred in just four years. A unique feature of the Texas program is its accountability measures whereby the local workforce offices are held accountable for their success in placing and retaining former inmates in jobs.

The Texas program provides job placement services to more than sixteen thousand parolees annually; more than twelve thousand employers hired parolees through the program. Parolees participating in RIO are much more likely to be employed than their non-participating peers, and an evaluation of the program found a significant reduction in the reincarceration rate of high-risk parolees. A 1990 assessment indicated that the $8 million budget for the program was generating $15 million in reduced incarceration costs.

Nonprofits Helpful

Many transitional programs rely on partnerships with not-for-profit community organizations. The Safer Foundation in Chicago and the Center for Employment Opportunities in New York City provide support services for former inmates, focusing on job placement. The Ten Point Coalition in Indianapolis, Jobs Partnership in Raleigh, and the Transition of Prisoners program in Detroit combine a spiritual approach, individual mentorship, and job placement, helping inmates through the re-entry process.

Many of these programs, following lessons learned in the welfare reform movement, take a “stepping stone” approach to employment, hoping that success at an initial job will lead to higher-paying positions down the road. This promise can be crucial in overcoming the skepticism of many former inmates about whether they will ever be able to secure a job providing livable wages. The stepping stone approach can also help convince employers to take a chance on former inmates.

An even more comprehensive strategy involves linking work in the prison to employer needs in the community. In Minnesota, for example, the state’s department of correction is working with the department of economic security to identify private sector labor needs and then provide appropriate training and experience to inmates through the prison’s industry program. Other states have created similar partnerships with private employers. In South Carolina, a prison industry program involving cable assembly received an award from IBM for high product quality. In California, inmates schedule itineraries for TWA, and many have secured employment with the firm following release.

Perhaps the most impressive public-private partnership linking prison industry and post-release work opportunities is PRIDE (Prison Rehabilitative and Diversified Enterprises, Inc.) Enterprises in Florida. PRIDE operates in twenty Florida correctional institutions, including over fifty industries employing inmate labor. During 2000, more than 4,600 inmates worked 4.2 million hours. The businesses included both traditional industries such as furniture and textile work and also new-economy industries such as print and digital information services. PRIDE also works with job placement and support organizations to help former inmates obtain jobs upon release. The affiliated Labor Line temporary staffing service also meets the needs of employers by screening inmates, testing their proficiencies, screening for drug use, and performing related services. Thus, employers can hire former inmates with a degree of confidence unlikely in a cold hire off the street. PRIDE officials report that the reincarceration rate of their clients is less than half the national average (www.pridefl.com).

As these programs suggest, the past half-century of divorce between prison and work is no longer necessary. Before the Depression, more than 90 percent of America’s prison inmates worked while incarcerated. Concerns not about exploitation of prisoners but about unfair competition led to restrictions on the sale of prison-made goods, and today less than 10 percent of the nation’s inmates are employed in prison industries. The current and forthcoming labor shortages, however, are rapidly making these restrictions anachronistic. Economist Morgan Reynolds estimates that putting only one-quarter of America’s inmates to work and charging them for room and board, victim compensation, taxes, and child support, would reduce taxpayer costs by $2.4 billion per year. Expanding the opportunities for prison inmates to meet labor needs while preparing for work following release would help ease the nation’s labor shortage, greatly reduce the chances that ex-convicts would return to criminal activity, and cut prison costs. The programs described here suggest that the most effective way to achieve these goals is through partnerships between state departments of correction and workforce development, private employers, and mediating institutions such as the faith community.

About the Author

Edmund McGarrell is a professor at Michigan State University and director of its School of Criminal Justice. Prior to joining the MSU faculty, Ed was director of Hudson Institute’s Crime Control Policy Center. He has been a fellow at the National Center for Juvenile Justice and was formerly director of the Washington State Institute for Community Oriented Policing. In addition, he has taught at Indiana University and Washington State University.

Ed is co-author of Blueprint for a Drug-Free Future: Reducing Illegal Drug Use in the United States (with Jason D. Hutchens, Hudson, 2001), Returning Justice to the Community: The Indianapolis Juvenile Restorative Justice Experiment, and Targeting Firearms Violence Through Directed Police Patrol (Hudson, 1999-2000). He is co-editor of Indiana Juvenile Crime Forum Proceedings (Hudson, 1997); author of Juvenile Correctional Reform (SUNY Press, 1988); and co-editor of Community Corrections and Community Policing in a Rural Setting (Anderson Press, 1990 and 1997). Ed has also authored and published numerous articles in academic journals, newspapers and policy magazines, including American Outlook, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Chicago Sun-Times, Indianapolis Star, Newsday, and The Washington Times.

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