This post is part of a series recommending changes to how Minnesota handles criminal records and employment. The full report is here: Criminal Records and Employment in Minnesota.
Some Committee members have substantial experience supervising and/or assisting people with criminal convictions as they attempt to build lives free from crime. They were instrumental in maintaining the group’s awareness of the practical difficulties of achieving employment for people who had little or no work experience prior to their convictions and now are burdened with a criminal history. While some ex-offenders may derive real benefit from the work- readiness training presently available to Minnesota’s unemployed, many of them must have training that is specifically focused on the deficits common in forensic populations. In addition to lowering the legal and social barriers faced by ex-offenders, it is necessary for the correctional system to create opportunities for people to acquire valuable skills, and to provide them with real work experience.
The work experience referenced here should not be confused with the unskilled chores that are part of the “productive day” programs often used in correctional facilities to provide inmates with a sense of purpose and to minimize negative behaviors. The cleaning, maintenance, food service and laundry work that may be a valuable part of a productive day in jail or prison are not usually adequate to enhance employment opportunities in the outside world. When such work is given added value by being part of a program linked to the known needs of specific employers in the community and including skills and attitude training that raise workers above the lowest level of day labor, it may become real work experience of the kind contemplated in this discussion. That is, experience that makes offenders more valuable workers than they would have been left to their own devices, especially because it is designed and implemented in consultation with prospective employers.
Ideally, work experience is provided while offenders are still incarcerated or under the active supervision of corrections agents. It is evident that employers want people who display the attitudes and habits that are part of reliable attendance, interacting appropriately with co- workers, and doing consistently good work. Corrections agents understand offenders and can employ a range of sanctions that may be uniquely effective in encouraging this essential socialization among individuals who often have reason to doubt their own potential.
Offenders who are placed on probation must not be overlooked when we think about making people with criminal records more valuable to prospective employers. They are often more capable of living and working in the community than those who are imprisoned, and there are many more of them. Some county jails have been able to provide real work experience to longer-term inmates, but most probationers do not have such opportunities. Even the wealthiest county correctional agencies do not have the funding to build the work programs they would like to have in their jails, and many probationers are not incarcerated for long enough to participate in jail programs. The short-termers serving DOC sentences in local facilities are often subject to the same deficits.
County corrections agencies must be funded at a level adequate to create work programs linked to the employers in their vicinity and to make it possible for agents to adequately support their clients in obtaining and keeping jobs. Such support would include acting as an “interpreter” between the client and employer, by helping the client explain his past conduct and how he has put it behind him, assuring the employer that the client is not using drugs or abusing alcohol, providing a “go-to” person when either party has a concern about the work relationship, and so on. The Committee heard from probation officers who expected to have meaningful engagement with clients and are discouraged by the fact that they are able to do little more than conduct brief check-ins and report failures to the courts. The Minnesota Corrections Association’s 2008 Legislative Position Paper reports that corrections agents have caseloads three times greater than in 1980.
The Committee heard from two programs that show real evidence that they are successfully providing skills training and work experience making offenders employable in the community: Hennepin County’s STS Homes Program and Minnesota Correctional Facility-St. Cloud’s masonry program. Both programs are based on win-win relationships with trade unions. The programs were designed with the unions and have on-going union involvement; the Hennepin program relies on union supervisors for its work crews. The prison inmates who participate become high-quality prospective apprentices.
At present, many unions are unable to recruit the number of apprentices they need to replace retiring members. They are troubled by the lack of commitment and competence of those they do recruit, because it threatens the maintenance of high standards that is the core of the unions’ missions. Many unions wish to recruit minority apprentices, and both programs include a high percentage of people of color. Those who participate as trainees usually find employment on the outside; there is no doubt that the supervision that comes with incarceration contributes greatly to their success. A significant number of those trained in the Hennepin construction program go to work for non-union contractors, a reality which the union expects and understands.
The Committee heard from Bob Hunter, Division Manager of Hennepin County’s STS Homes program. Preparation for the STS Homes program began in 1999. By early 2000, six offenders had been selected to participate in the first house-building crew. Today, there are seven offenders selected for each of the seven crews (3 crews out of Lino Lakes, 1 out of Red Wing, 1 out of Stillwater, 1 out of Shakopee, and 1 advanced crew out of the workhouse in Plymouth). After a two-day training on safety and expectations, crews begin on-site training. Each crew works on a home for approximately seven months, with periodic performance reviews. There are rarely disciplinary issues, and only one offender has ever absconded from the job sites (in September 2007). Hennepin County tracks graduates of the program and, over eight years, boasts a recidivism rate of less than five percent.
The STS Homes program assists graduates with job placement upon release from prison, and most are able to obtain good jobs. The unions typically give graduates about 2,000 hours of credit toward journeyman status, which requires 7,000 hours. Currently, the program is working on a contract with tax services. Under this contract, STS Homes program would have offenders rehab foreclosed homes, which would then be used to house DHS clients who no longer need to be in an assisted living setting.
Ms. Patty Popp and Mr. Jason Kilanowski spoke to the Committee about the masonry program at MCF-St. Cloud. Ms. Popp is the Institution Education Supervisor at MCF-St. Cloud, and Mr. Kilanowski is responsible for supervising the masonry program. According to their presentation, approximately 22 offenders are selected to participate in the program at a time; they receive 47 credits of masonry instruction. Most of the training is hands-on; all book work is completed on offenders’ own time. After completing the training program, most offenders are awarded approximately 4,000 hours of on-the-job experience, which counts toward journeyman licensure (6,000 hours required). Upon release from prison, the unions assist program graduates with job placement. The average starting wage for graduates is $19/hr. Within 12-24 months after release, many graduates complete their hour requirement to reach journeyman status, which comes with a pay increase to approximately $30/hr.
Mr. Kilanowski pointed out that the average age of bricklayers in Minnesota is currently 56 years old. With an aging population and low numbers of individuals seeking apprenticeships, the unions have an incentive to work with the prisons in this program. It provides them with trained, qualified employees who can fill the spots left vacant by retiring bricklayers. Unfortunately, the Department of Corrections does not gather the data necessary to measure the impact of its vocational programs on recidivism.
- Fund county corrections agencies at a level adequate to allow them to work within their communities to provide work experience to individuals on probation, to support probationers in getting and keeping jobs, and to measure their efforts’ impact on recidivism. The Committee recognizes that the likeliest and best source for this funding is not new money, but the reallocation of the state’s correctional resources based on evidence of the financial and public safety return achieved by reducing recidivism.
- Fund DOC vocational training that is designed in collaboration with potential employers, measures impact on recidivism, and provides all inmates with experience working at jobs that are likely to be available in the community. It should be noted that it is the position of the Department that no additional funding is needed for vocational training, since all inmates are presently employed. It may be that all that is necessary is to create a means to collect the data essential for evaluation, so as to ensure that DOC programs are reducing recidivism.
- Fund state or nonprofit vocational programs for ex-offenders only if the large majority of participants gain employment, and the programs have measurable impact on recidivism.
Explore the possibility of linking funding for correctional work programs to projects that would benefit the communities most impacted by crime or would build facilities needed to enhance public safety.
Some high-crime neighborhoods have been particularly hard-hit by foreclosures and have a significant number of boarded-up houses that could be repaired, or torn down and rebuilt, so as to provide affordable housing. The Minnesota Corrections Association reports that there are fewer half-way house beds in Minnesota than there were in 1980, while the prison population has gone from roughly 2,000 to 9,010 in 2006.51 According to testimony recently provided to a legislative working group on re- entry, 70 percent of sex offenders have no housing when they are released from prison.
Projects of this kind will not be provided by the market sector and, without some out-of- the-box thinking, the State cannot provide them, either. It is extremely difficult for those with criminal records to get and keep jobs when they are living on the street or in temporary shelters. The laws requiring predatory offenders to register are not effective when such individuals have no stable address. It seems that the linkage proposed here would enhance public safety in several ways.
51 Data presented by Minnesota Corrections Association at their Fall Training Institute on October 18, 2007.