"The sparks flew, the torch blazed at nearly 10,000 degrees as the metal melted, pooling at the joint that connected two flat steel plates. Bright enough to blind a careless onlooker, Gage Bryant’s torch has not just done the welding these past few months, it has also become a kind of beacon for him to follow, a glow of hope that could lead to a life far away from the prisons that have confined him for 11 years. That hope is real enough, said Shontese Renfroe-Wilson, program coordinator at the Gwinnett County’s department of corrections. The course where Bryant learned welding was the second given at the county prison in Lawrenceville, Renfroe-Wilson said. “The first class graduated and got jobs immediately. Right now, we’ve got a success rate of 100%.” Pretty much all resumes are tainted by a prison past. But the unemployment rate is at a 50-year low. Some skills are in short supply, some companies are shorthanded and worker flaws are a little less of an issue than they were when joblessness was rife. Advocates may argue that it’s a matter of justice, that ex-offenders have paid the penalty for their crime and should not be handicapped in their efforts to become productive members of the workforce. But it’s much more practical than that, contends Katherine Perry, an English professor at Georgia State University and a co-founder of the Prison Education Project. Ex-offenders who cannot find work can need social or health services that others subsidize. Worse, with no other source of income, they may slip back into crime. Moreover, business growth can be dampened by a lack of workers contributing. “It’s not just bleeding-heart liberals and English professors,” she said. “It is an economic issue.” Whatever the reason, jobseekers who’ve done time behind bars would welcome any improvement. Their labor market is much tougher than the one most Americans face." By Michael E. Kanell - The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Booming economy, low unemployment mean second chance for ex-felons

The sparks flew and the torch blazed at nearly 10,000 degrees as the metal melted in Gwinnett County’s Lawrenceville prison on a recent Wednesday.

Trainees at the prison’s welding program are hopeful about life on the outside. Of the 13 inmates who graduated from the first course last year, 11 have been released and all found jobs.

That includes Jason Blalock, 43, who had been arrested many times before. He was convicted most recently on drug-related offenses, serving 22 months, before walking out of prison last December.

“I went straight to work that day I got out. I got paid like $20 an hour,” said Blalock, who worked as a welder for a small company in Lawrenceville before moving back home to Dalton and another welding job.

Jason Blalock says he immediately found a job after being released last December from Gwinnett County’s Lawrenceville jail, where he enrolled in a welding program. 
Photo: Photo provided by Jason Blalock.

Finding work with a criminal record remains difficult. While data are hard to come by, a study by Suffolk University sociologist Lucius Couloute last year estimated the U.S. unemployment rate for ex-offenders was 27%, roughly seven times higher than the population as a whole.

Right now, though, the nation’s unemployment rate is at a 50-year low. That means that some skills are in short supply, some companies are shorthanded and worker flaws are a little less of an issue than they were when unemployment was rampant.

Training programs such as the one at Gwinnett’s prison also are making job prospects of ex-felons a little less daunting. In another helpful development, Atlanta stopped requiring candidates for city jobs to disclose criminal records on applications under then-Mayor Kasim Reed. Georgia also rolled back that requirement for state job applicants under then-Governor Nathan Deal, part of a broader bipartisan push to overhaul the criminal justice system.

Roughly 30% of Georgians with criminal backgrounds are convicted again within three years of their release from prison, according to a 2018 report by the Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform. But a job is one of the strongest predictors of an ex-offender staying out of prison, the same report found.

July 10, 2019, 2019 - Lawrenceville - Gage Bryant (right) and Christopher Wilson in the welding classroom at the at the Gwinnett County Comprehensive Correctional Complex in Lawrenceville, where they are incarcerated. The facility offered them the opportunity to learn welding. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com
Photo: Bob Andres/robert.andres@ajc.com

Among those seeing hiring demand is First Step Staffing, a not-for-profit, Atlanta-based firm specializing in hiring veterans, the homeless and ex-offenders. It helps with transportation, sometimes taking workers to jobs, many of which are “light industrial” and logistics work, with an average pay of just over $10 an hour.

First Step, founded in 2007, places about 1,600 people each week on job sites. About a third are ex-offenders. Company revenue this past year has grown 4%.

“A lot of companies are in need of people. And if they weren’t good employees, we wouldn’t have business,” said Amelia Nickerson, First Step vice president.

Atlanta-based CKS Packaging, with about 2,600 employees, has long donated food and school supplies while staying closed Sundays, all legacies of the company’s Christian ownership. But in the past two years, it also has ramped up work with transition and rehabilitation programs, hiring 180 formerly incarcerated employees.

“The benefit for us is that we are finding some skilled workers that we wouldn’t have otherwise. And we are finding employees that are thankful and loyal to the company,” said Lloyd Martin, CKS’s vice president for manufacturing.

Prison time can leave permanent mark

Standard economics should mean job growth means an improving outlook for all job seekers – including ex-offenders. And the economy has been expanding for about a decade, an unprecedented stretch. Yet the prison stigma remains tough to overcome.

“In tighter labor markets, some employers might be more willing to employ people with criminal records as they seek out cheap sources of labor. But often, people with records are still bottom-most in the hiring queue,” said Couloute, the sociologist.

Martha Pompey spent three months behind bars last year, after several years in the U.S. Air Force and working for a transportation company. She said she’s applied for several jobs since being released, but remains unemployed. Michael Kanell/mkanell@ajc.com
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

That sounds about right to Martha Pompey, 59.

After eight years in the U.S. Air Force, she got a degree and training in technology, worked for a large transportation company and was involved in Monticello politics. But after a run-in with police in 2018, she was convicted of disorderly conduct and obstruction of an officer.

She lost her job and spent three months behind bars, getting out a year ago. Since then, she’s been unemployed. She tried to get her job back and was told there was no opening. Then she saw the job advertised, she said.

Pompey tried for jobs with the state, whose applications no longer have a box to check reflecting past jail time. She got through the first screen and was brought in for interviews, she said. “And when I told them I was on probation, the interviews stopped.”

The share of inmates without a high school or college diploma is dramatically higher than the overall population, representing another hurdle.

Some businesses are especially wary of ex-offenders. Many hotels are inclined not to hire ex-offenders for housekeeping jobs because they do not want people convicted of a crime with passkeys to guest rooms. And some convictions are more toxic than others. Not too many employers are willing to hire people who have served time for sexual crimes, especially if children were the victims.

From kitchen to construction with help of three-legged stool

Reverend Howard Beckham at Westside Works off of Joseph E. Lowery Boulevard in Atlanta. Beckham is the CEO of Westside Works, a long-term neighborhood program dedicated to the creation of employment opportunities and training for the Westside community. Christina Matacotta/Christina.Matacotta@ajc.com
Photo: Christina R. Matacotta

In general, the best odds for an ex-offender’s success is a three-legged stool: having the right attitude, finding a training program and connecting to an industry where loyal labor is in short supply.

Blue collar work is most often cited by experts as “ex-offender friendly,” especially construction, which is enjoying a boom in Atlanta and struggling to find enough workers.

That all came together for Derrick Woods, 42.

He came out of prison in 2016 after serving 20 years for manslaughter. Within a week, he’d found a job as a dishwasher at a Midtown restaurant. “On an early night, I’d get out about 2:30 or 3 a.m. Sometimes I had to walk home, from Midtown to Cascade Road. That’s a long walk.”

That spring, Woods took a course in construction at Westside Works, a neighborhood center that offers job training.

Representatives from companies came to the classes. Three offered him jobs. He took one with a large, national contractor and is now a carpenter’s apprentice. He’s on a track toward better, more supervisory jobs.

“When I got out, every opportunity that came my way, I have jumped on it,” Woods said.

Among those who have been incarcerated, there’s a kind of screening process, some of it self-imposed, said Rev. Howard Beckham, chief executive of Integrity Transformation CDC, the nearly 20-year-old non-profit organization that runs Westside Works. The partnership includes the Construction Education Foundation, Invest Atlanta, the YMCA and the Blank Foundation.

Nearly one-third of those seeking help at Westside Works are ex-offenders, facing challenges in finding housing and transportation even if they can get a job, Beckham said.

“You are not your past – you are yourself,” he said. “Ex-offenders can make the greatest employees, because they are more grateful. They know this is a second chance, and they want to take advantage of it.”

One strategy is to turn the stain into an asset.

Michael Greene in a conference room at Westside Works in Atlanta. Greene spent more than a decade in prison, where he earned a marketing degree and became a paralegal. He is now working for Westside Works. “There is life after incarceration,” he said. Christina Matacotta/Christina.Matacotta@ajc.com
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Michael Greene, 58, said he was discouraged, emerging in the 1980s from two stints in the Ossining (N.Y.) Correctional Facility, better known as Sing Sing. He finally realized street savviness had legitimate uses, too. He earned credentials as an alcohol and drug counselor.

“You can be successful,” he said. “Everything is built on sand, but there is life after jail.”

He now does outreach at Westside Works, after working at a local church-based recovery program.

But incarceration may be just one of the burdens carried by a job seeker. Age, race and education are factors in getting hired – even in a strong job market. Add addiction and the load gets heavier still.

Jerome White, 59, grew up in west Atlanta, working mostly as a laborer before his first incarceration at age 30. After that, he had numerous scrapes with the legal system, going to jail eight times for drug-related offenses or crimes committed to fund his addiction.

A year ago, after a four-month jail term for burglary, he found his way to a recovery program.

“I was sleeping on the streets,” he said. “I needed help.”

Westside Works was pivotal for him, too, eventually connecting him to a construction job with a company that installs foundations for large buildings. The work is hard, but he says he views it as a means to an end.

“I plan to keep working as a laborer, starting at the entry level, but I can get certifications and skills,” White said. “My real desire is to become a heavy equipment operator. I have to work my way up.”

Jerome White stands along Joseph E. Lowery Boulevard in Atlanta. White, who did prison time for various drug-related offenses, now works as a laborer for a large construction company. “The hard work keeps me motivated to better myself,” he said. Christina Matacotta/Christina.Matacotta@ajc.com
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Welder prepares for life outside

With Derwin Caldwell, it apparently took three times in prison to embrace the second chance – and a little luck was crucial.

This last time, his year behind bars was triggered by a parole violation. But neither renewed religious devotion nor a vow to go straight came with material resources. So Caldwell, 56, has been living with his mother since his May release.

“It’s been hard to get a place to rent,” he said. “Everybody does background checks.”

Trained pre-prison as a chef, Caldwell applied to many jobs – restaurants and otherwise – and came up blank, he said. “I think that my age also has a lot to do with it.”

Then fortune smiled: A cousin, who owns a small company that cleans business offices.

Kelvin Caldwell, the owner, said he has hired other ex-offenders and been pleased with the results at a time when it’s hard to find young workers.

Jennifer Rogers, who spent several years in prison, recently started the National Association of Women’s Prison Reform and has contracted with several companies to do their call center work. With the first contract, she hired two women, both formerly incarcerated. 
Photo: Photo provided by Jennifer Rogers.

Another way for an ex-offender to improve the odds: apply to a company run by an ex-offender.

Jennifer Rogers, who spent several years in prison about a dozen years ago for drug-related crimes, landed a job after her release in sales for an advertising company. She worked her way up over years of work, then moving to another company and greater management responsibility.

Last fall, she started the National Association of Women’s Prison Reform and has contracted with several companies to do their call center work. With the first contract, she hired two women, both formerly incarcerated, and she is hiring more as the other contracts phase in.

“When someone is ready to turn their life around, they are so excited to have the opportunity,” Rogers said. “They will show up early. They will stay late. They are just so desperate for a second chance.”

Gage Bryant (left) and Christopher Wilson in July show a model house built out of steel that they constructed in their welding class. They are prisoners at the Gwinnett County Comprehensive Correctional Complex in Lawrenceville, which offered them the opportunity to learn welding. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Many of the programs aimed at linking inmates to work are still modest. That includes Gwinnett’s welding program, which has only trained 27 since its start last year, a fraction of those who applied.

But for Gage Bryant, who is in the second welding class, his torch has become a kind of beacon for him, a glow of hope that could lead to a life far away from the prisons that have confined him for 11 years.

He sees the program as his ticket to a home, even his own company. He is up for parole in a couple of months and could be released by early next year.

“There’s nowhere you can’t go with this,” said Bryant, 24. “There are multiple things you can do. You’ve just got to think outside the box.”

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