Program Helps Prepare Minnesotans For Life After Prison

Updated: 07/12/2013 10:18 PM By: Beth McDonough

9,500 inmates are in Minnesota prisons right now.

As some prepare to make the transition from the inside to the outside, they're getting help. It's thanks to a $1 million grant from the Department of Labor to Goodwill Industries this week.

The program is called Prisoner ReEntry Initiave. 

Two challenges convicts face when they get out are finding a place to live and a job.  When your background includes a stint in prison -- and resume reveals you're a felon with a violent past, that can be hard to explain to employers.  Options are few and far between.

As if getting work isn't hard enough, consider Carl Nimis' experience.  He's applied for more than 2,000 jobs.  Had 700 interviews.  And no offer.  He couldn't get a job, or it seems, a shot, "Frustration is mild to say, hopeless almost like going back is better, at least I had something to do while in prison," he said.

Nimis is legally blind.  His background is startling. He served time in a maximum security prison for beating his wife to death with a metal pipe in the 90's.  He paid his debt and left prison eager to prove he's changed, "People didn't want to give me a chance, they just didn't know any better."

Nimis needed help.

"If you've been working in the kitchen for 15 years in prison you understand how to serve large amounts of people and you understand customer service," said James Houston, an employment counselor with Goodwill Industries.

Skills caught the attention of a food company working with Goodwill Industries to hire ex-cons.  "It makes economic sense even if we don't all agree on second chances in Minnesota," according to Andy Sagvold, who leads ReEntry Services.

I costs more to incarcerate someone, $32,500 a year, than to educate a U of M student.

When former offenders find work and become taxpayers, recidivism rates go down, public safety goes up.  "It's important to give people an opportunity so they can get back into the system and not worry about where they'll get their next meal from and will they have to go back and do things that got them into prison in the first place," says Houston.

Since 2007, Goodwill's ReEntry program has helped 803 prisoners.  It's not for everyone, 23% have returned to jail.  But Nimis said, "Through the power of work, I have the power of freedom."

A study by Johns Hopkins University says the retention rate for workers identified as ex-cons, is three times higher than the general public.  That's because once ex-offenders get a job, they want to keep it and they're loyal to the business that hired them.

There are about 15 companies that have signed on to hire ex-offenders.  It can be a hard sell but they do get a tax break for hiring folks who are ex-cons, have a disability or are low-income.