In the 1970s, manufacturing executive Dan MacKinnon did some volunteer work in prisons and learned that the toughest obstacle for most inmates was finding a job when they got out.
So he started the Maverick Corp., a nonprofit that created small industries in Hartford. He took ex-felons with no high school degrees or job skills and put them to work building houses, office and outdoor furniture; recapping tires, building industrial furnaces and reupholstering movie seats. At one point he had a workforce of 450.
Mr. MacKinnon, a man of remarkable public spirit, had his finger on a problem that has only gotten worse. Former offenders find it extremely difficult to get work (unless you are an ex-governor) — even low-wage jobs with no chance of advancement. This sends some back to a life of crime. Nationally, about half of inmates are rearrested within three years of release.
To tell inmates to pay their dues and rehabilitate themselves, then deny them a job when they do, is wrong. Thus it was encouraging to read an account by The Courant's Katie Melone of Fresh Coat, a Bridgeport-based nonprofit that hires ex-convicts and trains them in the painting business.
Similar ventures have opened in other cities, including Los Angeles, where former gang members are employed at a nonprofit silkscreen company, Homeboy Industries, which reported $1.1 million in revenue last year.
This is promising, but will touch only a relative handful of inmates. If the private sector won't hire ex-offenders, let's create publicly funded work projects. Inmates can be trained in painting or other trades, "green" projects such as park construction, and public works projects such as graffiti removal. The community court work crews who clean the streets provide a real service, at a lower cost than prison.
Obviously, incorrigibly violent criminals must remain behind bars, and it isn't always easy to identify inmates who will return to violent behavior. But the vast majority of inmates are released, and most have a shot at success if they can get housing, education and a job that doesn't involve retailing packets of white powder. State policy has moved toward re-entry services in the past five years. With the signing of the Second Chance Act, President Bush has shifted federal policy toward rehabilitation.
The time is right to start thinking about how to put large numbers of former inmates to work. The lack of a decent job got many of them in trouble in the first place.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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