Employment, faith keys to keeping prisoners from reentering the system

by David Rupert

Last weekend I worked in the yard, cutting trees and turning over soil. I bagged leaves, weary from the winter decay.

At the end of the day, I lined the bags along the curb and dragged my body into the shower, washing away the earthy soil that were marks of my labor. Finally, I sat down on the couch.

I felt good. Satisfied.

That’s what work does. It refreshes the soul, it rejuvenates the spirit and charges the body.

It’s the same feeling I get when I’m able to produce at my place of employment.

The pride of a job well done

At the core, capitalism is about work. You roll up your sleeves, produce and get paid. Work brings pride, as I can be satisfied in my labor.

If this is true for you and me, why is it any different for ex-prisoners who have served their time and are now expected to be productive members of society?

Last month, I sat at the annual fundraiser for Inside/Out, a Denver-based organization that helps female prisoners reintegrate with society after their release. Woman after woman testified to the organization’s successful focus on faith, dignity and preparation inside the Denver Women’s Prison for their next phase of life.

There are currently 21,000 people in Colorado prisons. Almost 800 are released monthly. The hope is that they don’t return.

But the numbers show that more than 62 percent of all Colorado prisoners return to their cells within three years. This is a colossal failure. Recidivism hurts the bottom line for the taxpayer as both the courts and the prison budgets are directly impacted. It also hurts families that were looking forward to new beginnings, only to take huge steps back. It’s destructive to the individual, driving home the message “failure.”

However, the the Inside/Out program, founded by Debbie Winans, has a recidivism rate of just 9.9 percent.

Training for the outside

So what’s different?

According to one of the women who served time at Denver Correctional Facility, it was the combination of faith and work.

Denise describes her life as “ a tornado” before prison. She was using drugs, living on the street and a frequent resident to local jails and prison. Over a 15-year period, she was released four times from prison, and every time reentered the program.

She finally had enough.

“I told God, ‘don’t let me out until I’m fixed.’”

She threw herself into self-help, counseling, church, and job training.

Denise received training and tested for her cosmetology license while in prison, a student of the Colorado Industries program, which helps prisoners find meaningful work while inside prison. The program has its eye on the outside, preparing men and women in the system for life outside.

Colorado Industries helps prisoners train in dog handling, wildfire control, agriculture, furniture construction, printing, construction, and more.

Denise enrolled in the cosmetology program, earning her license and valuable experience all while incarcerated. Today she is a Master Stylist and Nail Designer at a major salon.

“I’m grateful for my prison time, because it saved my life,” said Denise.

Work was a ticket to independence

She admits that life outside, especially for newly released prisoners, is hard.

“I found out the world is fast. It’s different. I didn’t know how to answer a phone because technology had changed since I had been incarcerated,” she said. “I had no money, no transportation, no food.”

Inside/Out helped provide some basics with their transitional program.

“Someone picked me up, gave me a place to stay,” she said. “They supported me, loved me, and then gave me responsibility. But then they said, ‘you are going to get a job.”

For Denise, work was the real ticket to independence.

Several states are debating “ban the box” legislation. The “box” is the job application stigma that trips many former prisoners, keeping them out of valuable employment opportunities.

By law, former felons have to indicate on a job application if they have ever been convicted of a felony. Checking the box is often an immediate disqualifier, especially when checked without any room for narrative.

Certainly there are jobs that wouldn’t be good matches for certain criminals. But employers should consider a job candidate’s qualifications first, and then delve into the nuances of the criminal record.

If we want to break the cycle of dysfunction in our current criminal class, we will need to realize that work brings dignity. And it’s dignity that helps erase the scars of shame and can transform a human.

To hire someone who has been reeducated by Colorado Industries, reformed by Colorado Corrections, and renewed by God can help change our society as a whole.

Thank goodness God has already “banned the box.”

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David Rupert

David Rupert is a Golden-based writer who has more than 2,000 articles on faith, culture and vocation published in a variety of publications. He is the community editor for the Denver Institute blog. Most recently he was content editor at the High Calling, helping Christians connect their faith to the workplace. He regularly writes for Patheos.