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Looking for a second chance: Programs help former offenders land jobs

By Maggie Blackwell
For the Salisbury Post

SALISBURY — When a former offender comes home from prison, finding a job can be a challenge. Yet data shows that people are three times less likely to return to prison if they have full-time work.

Salisbury has a number of resources that have successfully helped people re-integrate into the community, find and keep work. In fact, Rowan County is first in the state in finding jobs for former offenders.

• Jobs for Life: Rod Kerr is the director of Jobs for Life at First Baptist Church. He describes his program as a “next-step, second-chance ministry.” While it is faith-based, one doesn’t have to be a member of any faith or church to participate. It’s offered to anyone who comes in.

Jobs for Life is an international program, currently offered in 10 countries, over 370 sites in the world. It’s a 12-week program with homework. Every student is provided a mentor to help with homework and identify resources.

Over the course of the 12 weeks, students complete an interest inventory and identify jobs they would like, then focus on the best options for them. It’s a whole-person program and can even provide clothing for a job interview.

“I guess a quarter to a third of our students have had some legal difficulties,” says Kerr. “Many of them have been our most teachable people. They are highly motivated, want to work and get back to life.”

Jobs for Life has been in operation three years. In that short time, about 90 people have graduated from the program, and about 80 of them have gainful employment. For more info on Jobs for Life, call 704.633.0431, extension 105 to talk to Rod.

• Department of Revenue: Janie Rollins works with the NC Department of Revenue. She helps former offenders find work and on the other side, she helps employers sign on to state incentives to hire them. Serving a region of 14 counties, Rollins is one busy lady, but she is passionate about helping folks find work. “If we make it difficult to do what’s right, we make it easy to do what’s wrong,” she says.

NC Works Center: The NC Works Career Center at 1904 S. Main St. – many still know it by its former name, ESC – offers workshops for former offenders on the first Tuesday of each month, 2:30-4:30 p.m. Gaps in an applicant’s work history are a red flag to potential employers, and the workshop can help with that. Register by calling the Career Center, drop by, or visit www.NCWorks.gov. Phone is 704.639.7529.

Community Action: While waiting for the workshop, people can visit the Salisbury Community Action Agency, 1300 West Bank Street, where Rowan Cabarrus Community College has a representative 4 days a week. They can help with resumé writing and interview skills.

Advice: Be honest

The most important thing a former offender can do, Rollins says, is to be honest. A candidate should be as comfortable talking about his gap as he is talking about his skills. Open, candid disclosure of one’s experience is an indicator of honesty, and often a potential employer will respect this. This doesn’t mean, however, that the former offender should go through his entire criminal record.

Another tool is focusing on one’s positives such as acquiring a GED, going to school, being active in the community, or being active in recovery from addiction.

The most important thing of all, she stresses, is to be smart about how employers perceive you. Her agency works with candidates to mitigate that perception.

Expunging records

In addition, Rollins’ regional team partnered with Legal Aid of NC, and they now offer expungement clinics once a month. Clearing items off a criminal record can significantly help in seeking work. The clinic is a webinar that informs attendees what the laws are, who qualifies for expungement, what kinds of items can be cleared, and how to contact Legal Aid of NC for further info.

Anyone needing these services needs to register with NC Works, open 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday.

City of Salisbury jobs

Recent community input with the city of Salisbury indicated a Second Chance program is really needed in the community. Candace Edwards of Project Safe Neighborhoods said there is an action group working on this project.

In response, the city has identified a list of entry-level jobs for which it will give preference to former offenders if they have a referral from Project Safe, Project Re-Entry or the Community Action Agency.

Some jobs are part-time or seasonal, but still good opportunities, Edwards says.

“It’s a chance to get your foot in the door and show the city you’re a good worker. There’s always the chance they’ll transfer you to a more permanent position once you’ve proven yourself.”

Job search tips

Candace’s best tips for finding work:

  1. Be honest on your application. Some employers are open to former offenders, but they need to know you are honest.
  2. Learn how to answer difficult questions.
  3. Don’t beat yourself up. Not every job is a good fit.
  4. Keep your chin up. A criminal record doesn’t disqualify you from finding a job. There are many offenders in our workplaces.

The city of Salisbury has had more than one former offender succeed in full-time positions with benefits.

In prison: Project Re-Entry

Yet another opportunity for former offenders is Project Re-Entry, which starts with people while they are still incarcerated. PRE works with individuals who have up to 12 months left in state prison facilities. It’s a 16-week, voluntary training program with pre-release curriculum.

Rebecca Sauter, co-founder of Project Re-Entry, explained that it’s under the Criminal Justice Department of the Piedmont Triad Regional Council. In Rowan County they are in partnership with Goodwill of Northwest NC.

Sauter and four others were selected to represent North Carolina in 2001 in training provided by the U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Corrections. The training was intense, one week a month for three months in St. Louis. Following the training, the team pursued a grant and won it. An action plan to develop Project Re-Entry was based on the needs of the state at that time.

The mission of PRE is to improve the re-integration of former offenders, reduce criminal justice costs and increase public safety through the establishment of a pre- to post-release transitional planning system. Project Re-Entry is currently active in 23 counties and 13 prisons across the state.

Inmates who complete the course earn the opportunity to participate in post-release support. A PRE representative meets with them within 24 hours of their release from prison. Together they begin to work toward the goals the client identified pre-release.

Sauter says some typical goals might include employment, reuniting family, attaining a driver’s license and, of course, not returning to prison.

She offers her best advice for former offenders seeking work: “Be humble. Be informed. Be honest and demonstrate your eagerness to work. Asking an employer to give you a chance is not unreasonable. When talking to the employer, stress the benefit you will bring to the company, such as: ‘I will show up. I will work hard.’

“Realize that a job offering minimum wage is much better than the job you had in prison paying 70 cents a day. Focus on your accomplishments, such as, ‘I’ve made some poor decisions, but now I have earned my (GED/training, etc.) and I’m working to move on to the life I plan to lead.’”

After starting in July of 2008, PRE has help 585 former offenders in Rowan County, plus an additional 223 people through workshops.

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