Employers find former inmates can fill jobs

RIVERDALE Window & Doors President Ken Caito, right, first hired Carl Graham on work release in 2001. /
RIVERDALE Window & Doors President Ken Caito, right, first hired Carl Graham on work release in 2001. /

Hiring people who have done time in prison is a smart move for companies that care about their own profits, the cost of government, and the well-being of communities.
That was the message from an assortment of people – including several Rhode Island business owners – who gathered at the Providence Biltmore Hotel last month to launch a campaign to persuade companies to hire former prisoners.
The meeting was hosted by The Family Life Center – a Providence nonprofit that works with people leaving prison – the R.I. Department of Labor and Training and the R.I. Department of Corrections.
Keynote speaker at the Biltmore meeting was John Corella, a successful entrepreneur and CEO of Corella Industries of Scottsdale, Ariz., who, at his governor’s request, devised a program that builds alliances among private companies and the prison system to get inmates working at jobs before and after their release.
Along with a DLT representative, Corella emphasized that generous state and federal tax credits, grants for on-the-job training, and free bonding programs are available to businesses that hire former prisoners. Corella and other speakers said former lawbreakers can be excellent workers because they are so determined to prove that they are better people than their criminal records show.
Jesse Capece is an employment counselor at The Family Life Center. “This is not just a job to these individuals,” Capece said of ex-offenders who find work. “Think of how hard it is to be hired now in Rhode Island, especially if you have a criminal record. If you find a glass of water in the desert, you are going to be careful not to spill it.”
Ken Caito, owner of Riverdale Window & Door in Smithfield began hiring people on work release from the state Adult Correctional Institutions. about 20 years ago (Under work release, inmates who have met several criteria may leave the prison daily to work at jobs in the community, returning to prison at the end of their work shift.)
Caito said he has employed about 300 people on work release, and several have joined his staff after leaving prison. “The program has been excellent for my company,” Caito said. “It really has helped us with the growth of the company.”
Another Rhode Island business that has had success with hiring and retaining former prisoners, according to its CEO, Michael Caparco Sr., is Capco Steel Corp. in Providence.
Cash support from the government and eager workers who want to make good are the carrots to induce companies to hire former prisoners. The stick is the recognition that people who leave prison without hope of employment are more prone to commit crimes, return to prison, and impose a greater financial burden on the state.
According to Tracey Poole, a DOC spokesperson, it costs Rhode Island $40,000, on average, to keep a person in prison for a year. The department is releasing about 350-400 inmates a month. About one-third of those people will return to prison within 12 months.
“If a man has broken the law, and he is back on the streets, and you won’t give him a job, what is he going to do?” said William Tribelli, who teaches cooking at the ACI and the Youth Training School. Tribelli has worked quietly for years to land culinary jobs for former prisoners.
“I believe a lot of them have changed,” Tribelli added. “They come out with optimism.”
So what are the specific carrots that businesses can enjoy by hiring former prisoners?
• Work Opportunity Tax Credit is a federal tax credit of $2,400 per person, per year available to eligible employers that hire specific target groups, including former prisoners.
• Workforce Expansion Grants are state grants awarded by the governor’s Workforce Board and the R.I. Economic Development Corporation. These grants allow up to a 50-percent reimbursement for training costs, provided various criteria are met.
• Job Training Tax Credit is a state tax credit against the corporate income tax equal to 50 percent of actual training expenses, up to $5,000 per employee over three years.
• Federal Bonding Program allows free bonding with up to $5,000 of coverage, with no deductible, for losses of money or property.
Corella, the Arizona businessman, described a number of creative ways that businesses are using prisoner as workers, to the benefit of both. In Arizona, an egg ranch buses prisoners to its property and back every day. Also, he said, a business called Televerde built a call center inside a women’s prison and a similar center just outside the prison. Both current and former prisoners work at the call centers.
Roberta Richmond, assistant director of rehabilitative services at the state DOC, told the meeting that Rhode Island has moved away from an era in which prisons were little more than warehouses and into a new approach, which sees prison time as an opportunity to solve addiction problems, earn a diploma, learn vocational skills and prepare to succeed outside. According to the DOC, 60 percent of Rhode Island prison inmates have no high school diploma and 70 percent are functionally illiterate. The DOC offers prisoners academic classes and vocational training in many areas, include construction, computers, food service and more.
The state has created regional re-entry councils based in Newport, Pawtucket, Woonsocket, Providence and Warwick, where experts in addiction treatment, housing, employment, family life and other areas help prepare people to for society after prison. Richmond said these councils are trying to recruit businesspeople to help with this effort.
Connie Parks, an official with the DLT, said she believes Rhode Island can make progress toward the prison-to-work force successes Corella is pushing. “We need to find a champion at the corporate level to work with their peers in business,” Parks said. “It will take time. The problem is prevalent, and it will not go away anytime soon.”
Why do companies hesitate to hire former prisoners? The reasons are predictable: fear about safety and security at the workplace, fear of alienating clients, formal corporate policies that ban the practice and stereotypes.
“Society looks at the prison system and thinks the people there are monsters,” Corella said. “Now, especially with the drug trade, people from all walks of life are in prison.” In Rhode Island, the majority of people in prison are serving short sentences for nonviolent offenses. Almost all Rhode Island prisoners will eventually return to open society.
“People who succeed in coming out of prison are so much stronger than I know that I could be,” Richmond said. “It is quite overwhelming: getting a job, keeping a job, paying off debts, reconciling with family. It is hard enough for ordinary people who don’t have a record to make it on the street.
People coming out of prison deserve our great admiration,” she added. “It is a tough world. We need to forgive people and give them another chance.” •

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