The end of October will herald new beginnings for roughly 6,000 inmates whose sentences have been reduced under changes to federal sentencing guidelines. While it
By Derek Gilna
When a powerful U.S. Senator takes interest in an issue, even a bureaucratic government agency like the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) pays attention.
Kurt Wilson, an executive with American Apparel, Inc., an Alabama company that makes military uniforms, and Michael Marsh of Kentucky-based Ashland Sales and Service Co., found that out after they learned that UNICOR, which runs prison industry programs for the BOP, was considering bidding on contracts for business that their companies already had. A public statement from U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell, who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee, led UNICOR to change its mind.
Like many other initiatives of the federal government, UNICOR, formally known as Federal Prison Industries, Inc., started off as well-intentioned. Prisoners earning from $.23 to $1.15 an hour are trained to work in factories supervised by BOP staff, where in theory they learn job skills that will help them find employment following their release. However, UNICOR has become not only a job training program but a manufacturing behemoth that employs some 12,300 prisoners and made approximately $606 million in gross revenue in fiscal year 2012 – yet still reported a net loss of $28 million. [See: PLN, Nov. 2013, p.52].
With that kind of size, purchasing power and cheap prisoner labor, it is almost impossible for small businesses to compete. Indeed, several companies have lost federal contracts due to competition from UNICOR, resulting in job losses among freeworld workers. [See: PLN, Feb. 2013, p.42]. This has made some business owners nervous – and angry.
A simple online search will reveal a plethora of prison education programs designed to equip prisoners with skills for life after prison. From community-based organizations to universities, there has been a growing consensus that releasing people from prison back into society without any training or education is likely to result in repeat offenses and subsequent jail time. Yet in tough economic times, there is the pressing need to justify every expense and every program. With education cuts in progress from coast to coast, many experts believe that decreasing funding for prison education programs is simply not an educated option.
The Need for Prison Education
According to Wesleyan University’s Center for Prison Education, 60 percent of released inmates return to prison (wesleyan.edu/cpe/about/whycip.html). The center asserts that “severely reduced employment opportunities” is at the root of this problem. Their education platform and similar initiatives in prison education target this problem by providing coursework that educates prisoners and teaches them valuable new skills that can help them lead more productive and more rewarding lives outside of prison.
A Department Chair at the College of New Jersey posted an article on Michael Moore.com asserting that “Over ninety percent of inmates eventually return to society,” (michaelmoore.com/words/mike-friends-blog/how-cut-deficit-increase-prison-education-programs). Many of these inmates have not completed high school and have no skill sets for making a living in society. Few would argue that returning people as they are with no additional training or education will not yield a positive outcome—not for the majority who fall into that 60 percent of inmates who will return to prison. In other words, there is a genuine need to bring that percent down and prison education is the key to making that happen.
Susan Trieschmann, a northwest Chicago café owner took a big leap of faith when she renovated her for-profit business into a non-profit reentry program for young adult ex-offenders. The second chance café is an experimental restorative justice restaurant. Initially the neighbors were skeptical about offenders pouring their morning coffee. But it only took the community three weeks to trust the stigmatized employees to serve them the blue plate specials. Today you will find customers on Central Street lined up at the counter during the noon hour waiting for lunch to be served by the transformed ex-offenders.
Curt’s Café is a solo act in a city that only provides reentry programs for juvenile offenders. Chicago has hundreds of coffee shops, but only one restorative justice café that gives ex-offenders a second chance. The innovative reentry program requires the employees to form a restorative circle at the end of each eight hour shift to check on each other’s personal development and work skill progress.
Trieschmann’s idea for her restorative restaurant originated from a passion to help offenders reenter the workforce with employable skills. She emotionally explains that she doesn’t think it is fair how difficult it is for ex-offenders to become productive citizens when they re-enter the working world with a criminal record lingering in their past.
When the employees first started working at the café they barely knew how to make a cup of coffee and had difficulty making it to work on time. The ex-offenders have come a long way since they first began working at the café. They had many challenges to overcome, but persistence has paid off.