Local re-entry program combats recidivism
BY JULIE DELCOUR Associate Editor
Sunday, February 12, 2012
2/12/12 at 2:51 AM
Jamel Bruner relaxed in front of the tube Wednesday night after helping to screen hundreds of T-shirts all day for such clients as the Hard Rock Café, sororities and colleges.
Bruner tuned into American Idol, a show about people getting a chance, about people beating impossible odds, about people advancing on the basis of performance.
Any parallels between the show and his own life probably never occurred to Bruner. But had he not received a chance eight months ago to prove himself, he might still be among America's idle, specifically Oklahoma's idle, thousands of former inmates who cannot find a job largely because of their records.
In June, Bruner, 31, left prison after serving seven years for a drug conviction and began applying for jobs. He had a GED and experience working 40-hour jobs in construction, telemarketing and other fields before getting into trouble.
"It was like (prospective employers) were reading from the same script," Bruner, the father of two, recalled. "I was honest and told them about my record. They'd tell me they didn't have enough work, it was slow, to call back later, and then they'd say, 'I hope you have good luck.' "
No such luck
Bruner didn't find work, however, until his probation officer linked him to a public-private social innovation program launched here on July 18 by the New York-based Center for Employment Opportunities, and the Tulsa-based George Kaiser Family Foundation.
CEO's comprehensive employment program has produced dramatic results in New York where it's credited with reducing recidivism among its clients by up to 26 percent for ex-inmates who enrolled in the program shortly after release. Last week, CEO received favorable marks in a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report.
CEO founder Mindy Tarlow said CEO already had decided it was ready to replicate its program elsewhere when she was contacted by Amy Santee of GKFF, which supports programs to help former offenders. CEO decided to launch its second program in Tulsa, hiring Tulsan Kelly Doyle, an experienced re-entry coordinator, as executive director. Doyle and her staff work with inmate referrals from the Department of Corrections. So far, 78 former offenders have participated on transitional work crews for Tulsa County, at the Metropolitan Environmental Trust (recycling), or on a new third crew serving Sand Springs and Jenks, at no cost to the cities. The program is funded with a 25 percent federal match from the Corporation for Community Service, a 25 percent match from the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation and a 50 percent local match from GKFF.
CEO has helped 37 workers find unsubsidized, permanent jobs. An average of 37 workers are enrolled in CEO at any given time. That number will expand greatly in the coming months.
Next week, CEO formally announces its presence in Tulsa.
Under the CEO model, clients go through orientation and then work with transitional crews. Each day they receive a rigorous, five-point performance review by staff at CEO, which pays the workers daily - minimum wage - at no cost to taxpayers. If they do well on the crews - picking up trash, grounds maintenance, demolition work and recycling tasks - they can move forward.
CEO also provides wraparound services, helping clients seek permanent jobs, instructing them on life skills and the dos and don'ts of successful employment. CEO also serves as almost a mini human-resources department for prospective employers who can look at reviews to see how reliable the worker was on the work crew. CEO tracks workers' progress for up to 15 months. If a worker does not do well in outside employment he can return to CEO and try again. On average, workers with outside jobs are earning about $10 an hour, not bad in a tight economy.
So far, CEO has seen only one ex-offender arrested for a new offense.
"I think of the things my father told me about work when I was growing up," Doyle said. "That didn't happen for a lot of them. Many have never held a 40-hour job, had to show up for work on time; only two of the men even had a driver's license. They've learned, for example, that if you don't show up with your steel-toed boots, you don't get to work and you don't get paid that day."
Tulsa has a lower educational attainment rate - half of clients have no GED or high school diploma - than clients at other CEO sites in New York and California.
"Right off the bat they're dealing with difficulties, more challenges in finding jobs at livable wages. Some of them come out of prison after long sentences with post-traumatic stress disorder, unstable living conditions. They're under emotional stress," Doyle said. "These transitional jobs provide them with employment while they're trying to deal with other things in life."
Oklahomans have wrung their hands for decades over high incarceration rates and a high violent crime rate. Both rates jeopardize public safety and cost taxpayers far too much money. But the state doesn't do much to make sure inmates leaving prison - and more than 95 percent do - have successful re-entry. Few of those released come out equipped to do brain surgery. Many, in fact, says Doyle, have limited educational skills.
CEO is a positive step toward reducing recidivism, turning lives around and increasing public safety, at no cost to the taxpayer. A variety of employers have been willing to give offenders a second chance, including the T-shirt screening company that hired Bruner, who was in CEO's first class.
"It's a good program," Bruner said. "Before, I knew how to work but I couldn't get hired. I'd tell them, 'just give me a month and I'll show you what I can do.'" But no one took him up on the offer.
CEO, on the other hand, "was like a door opening."
Original Print Headline: Second chances
Julie DelCour 918-581-8379