Does Re-Entry Turn Tax Takers To Tax Payers?

Every year, more than half a million inmates return home from prison. And in this economy many face a tough time finding work. That's why the Labor Department has awarded a series of grants to help reintegrate ex-offenders. Host Michel Martin discusses reentry and recidivism with Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis and ex-offender Jennifer Gaskins.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, what happens when a young woman who's lived in the U.S. since she was three days old discovers that she is undocumented. We'll hear her story in just a few minutes. It's the latest in our series called In Limbo. It's being in limbo in immigration status. But first, we want to talk about an unemployment problem you may never have thought about.

Just about everybody knows that the unemployment rate in this country is a lot higher than most people would like but more than half a million Americans are leaving prison to return to their neighborhoods every year and although national statistics unemployment for ex-offenders are not available, finding jobs for returning citizens seems tougher than ever. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis this week decided to highlight that issue.

She decided to spotlight success stories of ex-offenders who have been successfully able to reintegrate into society. Her department has awarded more than 30 million dollars in grants to states and local organizations this year to help reintegrate ex-offenders and she's with us now. Madam Secretary, thank you so much for joining us.

SECRETARY HILDA SOLIS: Thank you so much Michel. It's good to be with you.

MARTIN: Also with us is Jennifer Gaskin. She is one of those success stories that Secretary Solis honored as a success story. Jennifer, I'm happy to have you with us well.

JENNIFER GASKIN: And thank you for inviting me.

MARTIN: And Madam Secretary, we're eager to hear from you. I'm going to start with Jennifer. I'm going to ask her to tell us more of her story. I understand that you were incarcerated for attempted distribution of crack cocaine back in 2002. Do I have that right?

GASKIN: Yes, ma'am.

MARTIN: And you were released two years later, right?

GASKIN: Exactly, exactly.

MARTIN: In 2004, okay, and you were able to find employment? How were you able to find employment when so many other people apparently have not been able to?

GASKIN: I stumbled on it by accident. I was going to get a resume made and the waterfront, down on the waterfront in (unintelligible) along with doing resumes for people who had just returned, they were extending themselves to people who wanted a job and I went, got my resume done. I went in, interviewed and I had a job.

MARTIN: Madam Secretary, how typical is Jennifer's story?

SOLIS: You know, it's not as typical as we would like it to be and you said earlier that the rate of unemployment is very high. It's very high amongst this particular population and a lot of it has to do with some of the barriers that are out there and that is making sure that individuals have the right tools, the education training certificates, and assistance they need to make the transition and fortunately through this program Steve Sosa that I visited earlier this week, we were able to talk with individuals like Jennifer and others and hear their first-hand experience as to some of the barriers and successes that they've accomplished.

And hearing her story was just so compelling. I thought indeed these programs are worthwhile. They give individuals a second chance to get out there once they've been released from prison and get back into the workforce but many of them need help with coaching, resume writing. They need to get online on the computer, meet with people also to get that continued encouragement. To me it's just overwhelming to hear stories like Jennifer's and others that I heard earlier this week and to continue to say that we cannot leave this community behind.

MARTIN: OK. Hold on a second, let me just stop you right there, Madam Secretary, if I may. What are some of the typical hurdles that ex-offenders find when they do go out and seek employment? I heard you identify a couple things, which is lack of basic skills like computer illiteracy or...

SOLIS: Yes.

MARTIN: ...even basic literacy.

SOLIS: Substance abuse.

MARTIN: Substance abuse, what else?

SOLIS: Yes, and also mental health and also housing issues regarding assistance for their children as well. Making sure that those connections between health, and human services, and all the other programs that can provide assistance for medical treatment and for housing are taken care of. In many instances, CSOSA is one of those entities that does that. That's the first, you know, backstop for people to get the help so, they can get up on their feet and it's a residential program for both men and women.

MARTIN: This is the program - one of the programs that assisted Jennifer as I understand it and you're highlighting that, and I guess what you're saying is in terms of housing is that it's kind of hard to hire someone when you don't have an address?

SOLIS: And you don't have any identification. Or credit.

MARTIN: Oh, identification but what about the attitude issue? What about an employer who says, look, I don't want somebody around who I think is going to have an attitude problem or who I think is not going to have, you know, basic social skills, or who I don't think I trust because I think it's reasonable that some employers might say if you've been locked up, chances are you're not somebody that I can trust. What do you say to that?

SOLIS: Well, I think that in many cases we are there to help provide assistance and assurances. We even have a bond program where we actually will cover expenses for an employer to hire up individuals, and we'll give them insurance. We'll actually also give them tax credits, $6,000 worth of tax credits to hire up individuals to give them a second chance. Meanwhile that person is still engaged with our services that will provide reintegration counseling empowerment.

Making sure that they get the soft skills, that they know how to work in an office, or in a work site setting. Many people have had experience doing their jobs for many years and got into trouble for some something that just happened in their life and many are prepared to give back. They want to be responsible adults and people to pay back to society but also to be role models to their children once again.

MARTIN: Well, Jennifer - and if you're just joining us this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with Labor Secretary Hilda Solis. That's who was speaking just now. We're talking about initiatives to find jobs for ex- offenders. Always difficult, particularly difficult in this economy where the unemployment rate is high. We're speaking with Secretary Solis and Jennifer Gaskins, who was cited by the secretary as a re-entry success story earlier this week. Jennifer, you were working as a housekeeper at Walter Reed, which is the now closed but, you know, nationally known hospital for returning Army veterans.

Among your colleagues, supervisors, patients, was your history as an ex-offender known and how did people, if it was known, how did they feel about working with you? Did anybody ever say anything to you about it?

GASKIN: Nothing negative. I made it known to my directors because you a background check and you want to be honest and upon trying to sell myself all I asked was that and be accepted for who I am today, not remembering my past but I did let them know that I'm not a bad person but I made some bad choices.

MARTIN: Um-hum, Madam Secretary, you know, to that end, as we mentioned that Jennifer was working at Walter Reed. What do you say to those who say - and Jennifer, forgive me, I don't want to hurt your feelings here - but Madam Secretary, recent veterans returning veterans also have a higher than average unemployment rate. Approximately 12 percent of veterans who served in conflict since 2003 are unemployed. I'm imagining that there are those are listening to our conversation who might say why should any government funds go to helping ex-offenders in a job market where millions of people who served their country in uniform are struggling?

SOLIS: You know why? Because we want to turn these individuals into tax payers not tax takers. And that's exactly what happens when we don't provide assistance so that they can become reintegrated into our society but also be able to get housing literacy skills and get a livable wage so they can support their family and themselves and be positive contributors to society and their community, and many people will do that.

And I've heard their stories. That's why I'm so happy that Jennifer's on the line. She's testimony that these programs do work and we need to expand the conversation so, we have more employers who feel confident and trustworthy in hiring these individuals. We need to be helping all of those productive individuals to come back in and be able to have that opportunity to support themselves and their families and be contributors to our country but we need to do the best we can.

MARTIN: And to that, and Madam Secretary, another question: your department has allocated almost $32 million dollars in grants...

SOLIS: Yes.

MARTIN: ...for re-entry programs this year. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics approximately 650,000 inmates are released every year from state and federal prisons, and in fact, many people think that number will increase because states are facing budget cuts.

SOLIS: Right.

MARTIN: And they have less of a desire to, you know, spend the kind of money it costs to keep people incarcerated. So, doing the math that comes out to less than fifty dollars per returning citizen. There are people who argue that, you know, what these grants do is they skim off the cream. People like Jennifer, nonviolent offender, somebody who served not a lot of time, a woman, as we said, nonviolent, somebody who already had skills and a work history and they're saying this is just the tip of the iceberg. What do you say to that?

SOLIS: I say that we have a commitment here at the Department of Labor and this administration to serve as many people as we can and to get the word out. And I'm really excited because I know that now, you know, there are programs like ours that we're offering that are actually giving hope to people.

We heard some tremendous stories on Monday. This young man who is a culinary chef who had been in prison for a couple of years, I think, more than two, and went on to say that now, you know, he has his housing now. He has - no longer lives in a transitional house. He has his own apartment. He can afford things.

And I can't tell you what he was espousing in terms of dignity and respect and trustworthiness and that he wanted to share this now with other young people and inspire them to do the same things, to overlook those obstacles and those things that maybe society has placed in front of him, but he's somehow overcome them. That's the good message. That's a good moral of the story here.

MARTIN: Jennifer, a final thought from you, if you would. You are still working, even though, as many people know, Walter Reed closed down as part of a base reorganization earlier this year, but you are still working. You're working as a housekeeping supervisor.

GASKIN: Yes.

MARTIN: Congratulations.

GASKIN: Thank you.

MARTIN: At Fort Myer, if you don't my mentioning that. What advice do you have for other ex-offenders or returning citizens like yourself who are back out there who - you know, trying to get a job, who are perhaps afraid that people will reject them, not give them a chance, be suspicious of them because of their history, but who still need to work. What advice do you have for them?

GASKIN: My advice is to not be afraid and don't let their past dictate who they are today. You have to take that chance and go out there and network. You know, sometimes you have to share your story, but with that, you don't identify with that part. You let them know what you're doing today.

Sure, I made some bad mistakes, but this is what I'm doing now. This is who I am now. You expound upon that and who you see yourself striving to be, and you just can't be afraid. You have to give it a chance. We took so many chances doing other things, why not take a chance on life?

SOLIS: And you know, if I might, Michel, I think what's important here is that there are many groups outside of the federal government and county government and state government, faith organizations that help to provide mentorships to help emphasize family reunification, parenting classes, to help do the job coaching that are there, available to be that support system once they leave the transitional housing places.

So we need to encourage that, that there's bonding that continues and it's available for individuals who really want to try to make it.

MARTIN: Hilda Solis is the Secretary of Labor. She was kind enough to join us from her office in Washington, D.C. Also with us, Jennifer Gaskins. She is an ex-offender. She now works as a housekeeping supervisor for a government agency and she joined us from her work at Fort Myer, Virginia.

Miss Gaskins, Madam Secretary, thank you both so much for speaking with us.

SOLIS: Thank you, Michel.

GASKIN: You're more than welcome. Thank you for having me.

SOLIS: Happy holidays.

GASKIN: And happy holidays to you all.

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