Calif. Companies Help Ex-Cons Get Back On Track

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Tri-CED CEO Richard Valle i i

Tri-CED CEO Richard Valle began working with young inmates in 1977 and decided to try to give a leg up to troubled kids. "We sincerely believe in everyone's potential. And that's something we never lose faith in," Valle says. Michael Lee for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Michael Lee for NPR
Tri-CED CEO Richard Valle

Tri-CED CEO Richard Valle began working with young inmates in 1977 and decided to try to give a leg up to troubled kids. "We sincerely believe in everyone's potential. And that's something we never lose faith in," Valle says.

Michael Lee for NPR

It's hard for anyone to find a job these days, and if you've spent time behind bars, it's even more difficult.

But in California, where more than 130,000 people leave state prisons every year, a number of nonprofit organizations are finding it can make good business sense to hire ex-cons.

Steve Sims was in and out of jail for more than 10 years before being hired at Tri-CED Community Recycling in Union City, a quiet suburb of the San Francisco Bay Area. He was hired at Tri-CED nearly a decade ago.

Tri-CED makes a point of hiring people looking for a second chance — or a third or a fourth.

Twenty-five percent of the people who work at Tri-CED have a record — or are at risk of getting one.

That's not by happenstance, says CEO Richard Valle, who co-founded Tri-CED nearly 30 years ago.

"What we tried to create here was an opportunity for people to get back on track," Valle says.

That starts with jobs that pay $9 an hour, but the possibilities rise from there — all the way to union gigs with Teamsters Local 70. As far as Valle is concerned, every possible task is an employment opportunity.

"We're in the business of creating jobs — any little job we can find, whether it's janitorial service inside the office or cutting the grass out in front, we do in house," Valle says.

Not every employer is so thoughtful. California has the worst recidivism rate in the nation; more than two-thirds of ex-cons in the state return to prison.

In large part because of these grim numbers, Goodwill Industries of San Francisco, San Mateo and Marin has made hiring ex-cons part of its main focus; 51 percent of the employees have a felony conviction.

"We take people's discarded and unwanted goods, and we take society's discarded and unwanted people," Goodwill CEO Deborah Alvarez-Rodriguez said at a recent employment forum in Oakland, a city with a lot of parolees and 17 percent unemployment. "We have to move from job training and entry-level employment to transforming lives and creating solutions to poverty. And we have to put the marketplace at the center of what we're doing."

Her comments resonated with Mike Hannigan, who runs a for-profit office supply company called Give Something Back.

Hannigan says a lot more firms could make use of government programs that offer subsidies and tax credits to companies that hire and train ex-cons. But, he says, too many employers fear the prospect of onerous paperwork.

"That's why it's important for the programs themselves to come to the companies and say, 'These resources can make your company more productive, and at the same time, use your company as an employment opportunity for somebody who may have some barriers that are overcome-able but they need some help to get there,' " Hannigan says.

Give Something Back is taking advantage of federal stimulus money channeled through the state's welfare-to-work program that covers 80 percent of pay and training costs. Hannigan is using the subsidy to train truckers now, so they're ready to roll when the economy picks up in Oakland.

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