Thousands of people are paroled each year from penitentiaries across the United States. Ask Jamel L., Ralph S. Edward W., or practically any others and you’ll find that they can pinpoint the date and time the heavy steel gates opened for them to step back into the world. They can describe the sunshine or the rain or snow that was falling. They can remember who, if anyone, was there to drive them home. And they can recall the rejections they encountered in their quest for a job.
A parolee’s struggle is a daunting one in any of the old industrial cities of the North—cities such as Buffalo, New York, the home of Jamel L., Ralph S., and Edward W., where mills, factories, and rail yards have fallen to ruin and boarded-up storefronts line once bustling downtown streets. In Buffalo, where the current economic crisis began in the early 1970s, there is an abundance of the factors that drive recidivism among parolees: unemployment, poverty, low self-esteem, drug abuse, lack of education and job training, and others.
During the 1970s, the Vera Institute of Justice, a New York City–based nonprofit organization that works with government agencies and community leaders to improve criminal justice and public safety systems, launched a program whose goal was to provide effective employment services for men and women parolees as soon as possible after their release from incarceration. This program gave its participants transitional work in neighborhood clean-up efforts and other day-labor projects overseen by the city’s sanitation and transportation agencies while they sought permanent jobs. Later, Vera added an effort to market the program’s participants to prospective employers and to train the participants in softer skills, such as job interview techniques and how to present themselves.
In the mid-1990s, Vera decided to transform the parolee employment program into a stand-alone nongovernmental organization, the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO).
Data show that parolees who engage in work soon after their release from incarceration have a lower rate of recidivism,” said Mindy Tarlow, the center’s executive director. “CEO's aim is to provide parolees paying jobs that meet their immediate needs and then help them find permanent, higher-paying employment.” With a grant in 2010, the Open Society Foundations’ Special Fund for Poverty Alleviation added impetus to CEO’s expansion across New York State and to Oakland and San Diego, California, and Tulsa, Oklahoma. “We are drawing a lot of interest nationally and from abroad: from Newark, New Jersey, to Santiago, Chile,” Tarlow said.
Since it was spun off from the Vera Institute, CEO has made more than 16,000 full-time job placements for formerly incarcerated persons. Despite dismal economic conditions, during its fiscal year ending on June 30, 2011, the program found 1,584 full-time jobs for parolees in New York State. An independent evaluation showed that CEO had significantly cut recidivism among its clients through the three years after their enrollment in the program, reducing the number of returns to incarceration for new crimes by 26 percent.
CEO’s program in Buffalo held its first orientation and life-skills class for parolees in October 2009. By June 2011, 288 of the participants—232 of them African-Americans, the rest about equally divided between whites and Hispanics—had completed the class and 260 had chosen to enter the program’s transitional work component: a four-day-a-week, 6.5-hour-a-day job on one of two crews contracted out at minimum wage to the City of Buffalo and the Olmsted Parks Conservancy, a local park conservancy. The parolees whack weeds, mow grass, shovel snow, fill potholes, and pick up litter in city neighborhoods and six signature urban parks designed by the renowned Frederick Law Olmsted.
As the parolees are working their transitional jobs, the CEO’s employment counselors are contacting Buffalo-area employers to find the parolees full-time jobs. Despite huge numbers of local people out of work, Buffalo still has openings that pay $8 to $12 an hour. Warehouses are hiring. Construction companies with government contracts need workers. Positions are available in landscaping, retail, hospital cleaning, laundries, dishwashing in restaurants, and roofing. “The problem is that parolees have a gap in their work history, and some have no work history at all,” said Jeffrey M. Conrad, CEO’s Erie County director. “The transitional work program gets the parolees into a routine of having a job.”
In less than two years, the Center’s office in Buffalo placed 145 parolees in jobs starting, on average, at $8.61 an hour. Ralph S., Edward W., and Jamel L. moved up the wage scale and began rebuilding their lives.
Jamel L., 35, spent most of his childhood in Brooklyn, New York, at a time when his neighborhood, East New York, was so overwhelmed by drug-related violence that the police called it “The Dead Zone.” His mother sought a better place to raise her children and, after obtaining a nursing degree, she moved with them to Buffalo. “They just took me away,” Jamel L. said. “I was doing good in the city. I thought Buffalo wasn’t big enough for me.”
Jamel L. did well in Buffalo, for a time. He learned photography, and he played alto sax for his high school’s marching band. He was seventeen when he started dealing marijuana. He soon diversified into crack. In 1993, the police apprehended him and found he was carrying a concealed weapon. He was still a juvenile, drew probation, and kept dealing drugs. Other arrests and convictions followed, with brief stints in jail. But Jamel L. continued to sell drugs in Ohio and Pennsylvania. “I was all over Interstate 90, and blowing money on family, friends, and myself.”
Jamel L. was convicted of possession and conspiracy in Erie, Pennsylvania, and sentenced to five and a half to eleven years in the state penitentiary at Waynesburg. “In there, most people aren’t going home,” he said. “I started hearing of people with 100 year sentences and double life sentences. That’s when I decided to change my life. I started to go to school. I got my GED. I self-studied in psychology to see how people think. I read about business. I took carpentry. We tiled a whole police station. We did community work programs. We remodeled an historic house, and for that we even made the newspaper.”
Jamel L. got out of prison in the early morning of May 12, 2010. The weather grew warmer as he rode the bus from Waynesburg through Pittsburgh and Erie. His mother picked him up at the station in downtown Buffalo at about 3:30 in the afternoon. “I told her I was going to find a job somewhere. I didn’t want to get into the game again.”
From May to August, Jamel L. failed to find a job. His parole officer referred him to the Center for Employment Opportunities.
“Tears came to my eyes when CEO called me. I did not go to jail to get it together and then to come out and do the same thing.” Jamel L. attended class for a week. “I paid attention to what they were saying. They told me not to feel sorry for myself. They taught me interviewing skills. They said, just be normal. Let them know you have been convicted but that you’re moving forward and making a change. We all make mistakes.”
After a week of classes, Jamel L. joined one of CEO’s two work crews, teams of eight members who work under a contract with the City of Buffalo to clean up parks, cut back weeds, clear out abandoned houses, and shovel snow. “It was my chance to do something, to go out into the neighborhoods and help people. They gave me a passport with a one-to-five grade for work ethic, attendance, attitude, following directions, and conduct.
In November 2010, Jamel L. got a job at the Buffalo Convention Center. “We get called when they need work. We set up stages and chairs for concerts, shows, banquets, parties, weddings…whatever they might need. Today, it was an industrial show. This job is a stress reliever. It is like a world within a world, and I get satisfaction from what I do.
“I’m over my six-month probation period and third on the list for a full time position. Then I’ll have benefits. People keep that job.”
“I’m trying to save up enough money to get me a hot dog stand. So I’ll be in business for myself. My long-term goal is to start a cleaning business. It is hard to get a vendor’s license with a felony conviction.
“CEO was a help when no one else was. Everyone said, ‘We’ll call you.’
“But no one called, except CEO.”
Ralph S. scored well in his classes until he was picked on in high school for getting good grades. He also scored well in basketball, playing center on a team that won two state championships. Ralph S. admits that he was a mama’s boy and that he was afraid to leave home after he graduated from high school in 1999. He was about to become a father. His mother told him he had to act like a man and stop wearing pants that slid down his butt. He delivered furniture, flipped burgers, did plumbing work with his father, and stocked shelves and waited on customers for Home Depot, which gave him health benefits and a 401k, and, in 2003, was hired into the roofers union.
Then, Ralph S. says, “I got blinded by a smoke screen. It’s like I lost all sense of what was instilled in me.” He started hanging with kids who had not had the same four-square, church-going upbringing. He ended up loaning one of them $500. He didn’t repay it. “He was MIA, not answering the phone, ducking me.” Ralph S. was accused of kicking in a door where the friend had lived and taking a television. He was arrested for robbery. “I tried to get my friend and his family to come forth and tell the truth so I wouldn’t be locked up. They never did.”
“Prison brought me back to the reality of who I really was. I took general business classes. MS Word and Excel. I worked on small engines. My mother sent me inspirational books, and I read about how to speak Spanish, and about real estate for dummies, and Psychology 101.
On September 23, 2008, eight weeks after his mother passed away, Ralph S. left prison and started looking for a job. “I had 71 interviews and I got turned down by all. Home Depot didn’t take me back. The roofers union said they were full. The collection agency: no, because of my felony. Waste management: no, because I might go through people’s mail. The furniture store, no. A couple of fast food chains, never heard anything back.”
Ralph S. finished one of the Center’s first classes in Buffalo, in early 2010. “We did resume writing. We learned to do job interviews and how to fill out job applications. We worked a little on the computer. We memorized daily quotations. In the transitional work, I scored a perfect five every day. I did so well I did an interview for the evening news and there were articles in the paper. We were shoveling snow.”
In April 2010, Ralph S. was accepted into an apprenticeship program that would provide him with on-the-job training as well as classroom study and, upon completion, put him on the path toward becoming a journeyman construction worker. “I prepare ground for foundations for infrastructure projects. We use bulldozers and back hoes, and learn about underground water pipes, line testing, black top paving, earth moving.”
“It’s coming, slowly it’s coming. I earn between $13 and $18 per hour, depending upon the job. When I finish, I’ll be getting $45. I got a 95 average this past semester, and will finish the apprenticeship next May.
Edward W. is 52 years old, born near Batavia, New York, to a machinist and a Free Mason who fought as an infantryman during World War II, and came north during the migration of hundreds of thousands of African-Americans from the rural South to the industrial North. Edward W.’s 90-year-old mother, who was still living, though blind, in 2011, told him about picking cotton near Greensboro, North Carolina, for “two dirty cents” and a new pair of shoes each year.
Edward W. came home from work early to find his wife of 17 years in bed with another man. He beat the man and was sentenced to five years in prison with five years parole.
August 21, 2009, was a sunny day. Edward W.’s daughter picked him up.
"I was a machine operator before prison, making granite tabletops. While in prison, the owner of the shop had a stroke and that was it. I got a job but they switched my hours to where I couldn’t get home. I told them I would have to quit. And I did quit. I saw a guy working for CEO. I asked the parole officer to refer me. At CEO, I did a week’s training classes. Then we were picking up trash in parks. They were paying every day. I needed the money. I did everything they said to do. They took me to a Salvation Army with a voucher for a suit, and the counselor said, ‘Wear the suit.’ I did, and I got the job in the first interview."