Dr. Stephen C. Roberts
The obstacles ex-cons face when they leave prison, from difficulties getting a job paying a livable wage to limited access to affordable housing, help explain why so many return to jail, a university professor who has studied the issue said.
“When they come out, they’ve been shamed already, and they are ready to do something constructive ... but often times they get trapped and they can’t turn their life around, ” said Dr. Stephen C. Roberts, an associate criminal justice professor at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.
A survey by the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and Chattanooga Endeavors showed 80 percent of Chattanooga employers would not knowingly hire a convicted felon.
Figures from the Tennessee Department of Correction show that within a year of release, 21 percent of all felons return to prison. Within two years, 35 percent will return. And within three years, 42 percent will go back to prison, according to the 2005 study, the last year the research was performed.
Dr. Roberts served nine years in federal prison on drug charges. He said he was lucky because he was just a semester away from graduating with his undergraduate degree when he went to jail.
“But every time I apply for a job, I still run into questions about the conviction,” Dr. Roberts said. “It’s still a problem. There’s a prejudice out there.”
Many parolees are required to have stable housing and employment, but their criminal past can stand in the way. Local groups, however, are offering assistance.
Kimberly Brown, 31, was convicted on a raft of meth charges in Whitfield County, Ga. She was supposed to serve 20 years, but she said the Transformation Project, a Chattanooga Christian prison ministry, petitioned the court to have her released early into its care.
Now she’s regained custody of four of her five children and has a job for the first time in her life, she said.
“If it wasn’t for the Transformation Project, I’d be somewhere on the pipe,” Ms. Brown said. “I know I wouldn’t have my kids with me.”
Transformation uses a list of businesses willing to hire felons. They vouch for their enrollees, promising that if the felon messes up — either by using drugs again or stealing from their new boss — they’ll kick them out of the program, which means they go back to jail, said Joel Davenport, the project’s transitions officer.
The Transformation Project isn’t the only group helping convicts. There are at least half a dozen, some with religious ties, others are secular.
Tim Dempsey, chief executive officer of Chattanooga Endeavors, said his organization makes it easier for convicted felons to find jobs. Like Transformation, his group already has weeded out the employers who won’t hire felons.
“But if they were just out there applying for jobs, they’d have to submit five times as many applications to find a job as the general population,” Mr. Dempsey said. “When you are just out of jail, without money, a driver’s license, or good clothes for an interview, it’s easy to see how hard that would be.”
STRUCTURE MORE THAN MONEY
Mr. Dempsey and others say felons need some structure when they get out of jail. Dr. Roberts thinks they should focus on higher education, but Mr. Dempsey and the Rev. Wayne Keylon, Transformation’s founder, say steady work is the key.
Mr. Davenport, himself a convicted felon, said it’s a tough sell convincing ex-cons that a minimum-wage job is better than dealing drugs or stealing.
“I have guys who look at me and say they aren’t going to work for minimum wage,” he said. “That’s stinking thinking. One of the first things we’ve got to do is to get them to stop thinking that way.”
Most of Mr. Dempsey’s participants earn about $8 an hour. That’s enough to eke out the necessities, but it’s not a living wage, he said.
Mr. Keylon said one of his group’s biggest successes is a woman who earns $10 an hour with benefits as a secretary.
“We look for jobs that have some advancement potential,” Mr. Keylon said. “It’s a foot-in-the-door thing. If they can get their GED, get a job with benefits, we hope they can move up.”
Until the wages are enough to survive on, the parolees can take advantage of other government assistance that doesn’t have restrictions for felons.
“I have a great landlord,” Ms. Brown said. “I pay $70 a month for a three-bedroom house. It’s Section 8, so I can afford it.”
She also has benefited from a variety of benefactors, such as a dentist who repaired her teeth, which were damaged by years of meth use, she said.
Ms. Brown’s success — two years free from drugs — is an example of how communities should help convicts get back into society, Dr. Roberts said.
“If you are a convicted felon, people don’t want to work with you, they don’t want to be your neighbor,” Dr. Roberts said. “But there are a lot of other people who will give you a fair chance.”
Adam Crisp covers education issues for the Times Free Press. He joined the paper's staff in 2007 and initially covered crime, public safety, courts and general assignment topics. Prior to Chattanooga, Crisp was a crime reporter at the Savannah Morning News and has been a reporter and editor at community newspapers in southeast Georgia. In college, he led his student paper to a first-place general excellence award from the Georgia College Press Association. He earned ...