Jobs for ex-offenders

Tuesday morning on my run, a guy pulls up in his car, rolls down his window and gives me a big grin. I didn’t recognize him right away (during campaign season- more people recognize you and expect you to remember the 2 minute meeting you had with them at a candidates night), but then I realized it was a former employee, from half-a-dozen years ago.

Last I saw him, was through the plate glass at the Montgomery County Jail. I’d hired him about 9 months previous, as a part-time web-designer. He wasn’t really qualified, but he had the right attitude. I introduced him to WordPress, the open source content manager that we use for about 90% of our clients websites. He was a quick learner.

I remember having to drive him home, since he didn’t have reliable transportation. I did some trade with a client who was a dentist to fix his teeth – his ghetto solution to missing front teeth was to wear a gold “grill”- which really wasn’t a good substitute for proper crowns. I don’t remember the details of how we parted ways, except that somewhere along the way, I loaned him $300 to get his cell phone back on- and found out later that it was spent on crack.

He’s clean now, after his family sent him up to Lima for a while with grandma, to keep him away from his running partners around here, guys who all had doper street names.

Now he’s married to his baby momma, a sweet girl he’s known since childhood. She has a masters degree. He’s got street smarts, and somehow, despite protests from her family, they are making it work.

He acknowledged that he still owed me the $300. He also told me, that if it wasn’t for me giving him a chance, introducing him to WordPress and giving him a bit of confidence in his abilities, he might not still be alive today.

He’s not the only ex-con in my life. The kid I’ve been a “big brother” to for the last 26 years, has spent two stints in the joint, both for being drunk, stupid and the wrong color in Greene County, where the “legal system” seems to have a much higher conviction rate for petty crap if you’re black. He’s said the same words to me- if not for me, he probably wouldn’t still be alive. He’s in year two of running his own business now. He’s doing it himself, and while I mentor him, there’s a big difference between working for me- and running his own business. He’s had a few setbacks, including having his brand new (to him) second truck stolen which unfortunately, he only had state minimum insurance. He’s learning the hard way that hiring is hard, clients are difficult, and selling the value of quality isn’t easy.

After two nights of listening to the Mayoral candidates talking about “job creation” I’m thinking about the jobs I’ve created over the years and the people I’ve given their first job in their chosen career. None were hired because government did anything, all were hired because I believed that they could make me more money than I paid them. That’s the fundamental equation in business. Ex-offenders don’t usually work in my field- advertising. Hell, minorities are as scarce in advertising as they are on the Dayton Police Department. The sad part is, ex-offenders are an untapped resource in our community. We have an abundance of them, and it’s something that AJ Wagner uses as a prop for his campaign stump speech. AJ says that as a judge, he saw a lot of young people in front of him when he was a judge, and they were all missing god, a job, or an education. No duh.

Since government is supposed to stay out of the god part, and we provided the education that failed, the only thing left to solve the problem is to either hire ex-offenders, or admit, you’re lying about having any way of solving this problem. Most politicians do the latter.

Gary Leitzell takes a different approach, he talks about teaching entrepreneurship starting at age 12. It’s what they do in the UK- where you take a test to see if you are college material or trade school material around the same age. But to me, it’s still a cop out. Kids want to excel and be recognized for success. The problem is that we’ve written off these kids en masse in Dayton. We’ve killed our neighborhood cohesiveness with the end of neighborhood schools We killed off our parks and rec programs. We’ve done everything we can to make sure these kids stand alone.

The first part of the solution is to not let kids grow up to be cons in the first place. While nothing beats parents with good jobs and a steady income, the focus of the community has to be on growing up on the right side of the law. Most social science experiments show that when you group poor people together, economic discrimination if you will, you get more poor people. Integrating poor people into better neighborhoods, better outcomes. The Disney Company experimented with this in their “Celebration” community where everything was planned down to the picket fences to create the Disney vision of utopia- giving us the backdrop for the movie “The Truman Show” where people lived “under the dome” of happiness.

By re-focusing our neighborhoods on creating positive places for kids to grow up, by rewarding neighborhoods that start scout troops, soccer and basketball teams, chess clubs, book clubs, after school tutoring, movie nights, we may be able to start to change the world view of our kids who are living in poverty. It also wouldn’t hurt if we made the Internet available to them via school issued digital devices over a city-wide wifi system. The old saying “it takes a village to raise a child” is our best defense against future life in crime.

If these steps would have stopped either of my two ex-offenders, I can’t say. My “little brother” was surrounded with books, and an avid reader. But, I do know that he had way too much unstructured time in the 10-14 age spread, and this is when the trouble started (it didn’t help that his mother spent 2 of those years dying of cancer that a real health care system might have caught and cured).

The second part of the solution is to provide real opportunity and training to ex-offenders and work on ways to clear offenses from haunting them like a scarlet letter. When my “little brother” went to prison the first time, he was warehoused and treated like a farm hand. The second time at a different institution, he was treated for alcohol dependency and educated- rehabilitated instead of treated like inventory. He came out with goals  and a good start on an associates degree (which Sinclair has systematically killed off). The key to re-entry isn’t a parole officer, it’s a career coach and opportunities.

James Kent is doing something about re-entry and employment. He runs Dayton’s Architectural Reuse Company and Dayton Works Plus. He’s training ex-offenders to hold down a job, basic life skills, and how to deconstruct and salvage building materials to make them ready for reuse. He calls his business model a “social enterprise” that creates value on many different levels other than on the balance sheet. If karma was a line item in a profit and loss, James would be a very wealthy man. He’s working to use two of Dayton’s major perceived problems- an abundance of both ex-offenders and blighted homes, and turning them into something useful. Unfortunately, the City has stood in the way of his efforts by bundling contracts to be bigger than he can bond for, and by denying his firm the right to glean before bulldozers from Nan’s political donors do the job the land-fill filling way. Gary Leitzell was the only commission member to respond to Kent when he asked for help.

But, manual labor isn’t enough to turn the tide. One of the beauties of online access is that there are somethings online that you can do that hide the fact that you are an ex-offender, one is study via MOOCS, massive open online courses, where leading educators provide courses of all levels for free. If the prison system can start these inmates off with an introduction to self- improvement, and we provide affordable online access, it’s possible that the code behind your website, or the tedious activities that can be distributed broadly (via a mechanical turk) , is handled by ex-offenders (my former employee builds websites, you can’t tell he’s an ex-con from the code).

It’s also easier to build communities online- of neighbors, neighborhoods and of networks of people to get things done. If we create Ohio’s first digital city, we may create the platform out of poverty that is hurting the perception of Dayton, the city proper, as a place where as AJ says- god, education and jobs are lacking. Note, there are plenty of preachers online for you to choose from AJ.

The state already has programs in place that offer employers incentives to hire ex-offenders, although my small business didn’t have the resources to dedicate to the complexities of the compliance. The real question is how do we provide ex-offenders the tools to help themselves? It’s not something we can solve overnight, or even in a four year term, but I do know that the challenges of coming out of prison and setting up a home is daunting. Success depends on support networks of families, friends and acceptance into a community because the cost of entry is high. Having to carry a high risk bond for car insurance because you haven’t driven in years, deposits for utilities because your credit was wrecked thanks to not being able to properly shut-off your cell or cable bill when you went into jail on your way to prison.

This is why my plan for micro-housing built with reused building supplies, that’s energy efficient, thanks to Mr. Kent’s program, coupled with bike share, which provides an alternative to a car, and city wide wi-fi makes a smart phone like those from Republic Wireless work everywhere, coupled with online communities and support groups and educational abilities can all be integrated into an ex-offender program worthy of global attention.

That’s how we create jobs for ex-offenders.


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