In the 1990s, states went on a prison-building binge. Today, millions who spent time in those prisons are back in society — and many are struggling to find work.
Jay Neal is in charge of Georgia's new office of re-entry. Its purpose is clear: "Helping Georgia's returning citizens find training, assisting Georgia's returning citizens find jobs," he reads off the website.
Returning citizens is America's new term for ex-prisoners, ex-cons and former inmates.
Six-hundred thousand of these citizens return to society each year, including 20,000 in Georgia, which has the country's fifth-largest prison system.
"We think it's important that we change the conversation," Neal says. "We're committed to using that dialogue throughout."
Last year, Georgia spent $17 million and got $6 million in federal grants to help reduce the rate of recidivism. The state has three years to show results. Already, there's skills training in prison, more caseworkers in six counties and more help once a prisoner is released.
Last week, the White House announced another $59 million in grants to support job training for ex-offenders.
It's a complex undertaking, Neal says, and government can't do it all.
"We've gotta be able to provide meaningful employment for them," he says. "That doesn't happen without businesses that are willing to give them jobs."
About 20 men with prison records and a willingness to work are gearing up for a character class at Georgia Works. It's a nonprofit in downtown Atlanta where they live for at least six months to become employable.
Harold Ball has been here since December after spending two years locked up for possession of cocaine. Now he has a part-time job at a recycling plant and is happy about it.
"It works," he says. "I need the structure, I need the job. Where I'm at now ... I said, 'Look, I want a permanent job.' " His boss told him that if he worked for two months, he could get the job.
Chris Watkins, a hiring manager for a landscaping company, has made it a mission to treat ex-prisoners the same as anyone else during job interviews — except that he asks about their record.
"I really don't judge on the crime," he says. "I want to see a level of accountability, personal accountability, because I know that if they're accountable for their actions in the past, that I can count on that when they come to the workforce — honesty, people with the ability to look me in the eye."
Watkins says those he hires are very loyal. But he is not willing to name his company because of a stigma that persists against ex-felons, he says.
There are many companies like his that quietly hire ex-prisoners, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. And there are employers like Johns Hopkins University and Butterball Farms that are very public about hiring people with a criminal record.
U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez says businesses are moving in the right direction, but there are barriers.
"I've spoken with employers who've said, 'Well, I'm willing to take a risk, but this person had a conviction for theft. What happens if something doesn't work out?' Well, guess what? We have a tool in our toolbox for that. It's called a surety bond," Perez says.
He is referring to the free insurance on an ex-inmate they hire. Companies can also get a $2,400 federal tax credit.
In Georgia, Jay Neal thinks it won't be hard to persuade more businesses to take some risk, because here, one in 13 adults is under some kind of state supervision.
"Just about everybody knows somebody who's been in the prison system and knows enough about them to know that they're not a real threat — that they need help more than they need to be locked away," he says.
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