By Nomin Ujiyediin
rlando Arnold was released on Mother’s Day, after seven years in correctional facilities and halfway houses in New Jersey. The following Thursday, he wore his slippers and his boxers in the shower, just like he used to in prison.
“I’m in the house by myself. Why am I wearing boxers and slippers in the shower?” he recounted, at an interview at the offices of the New Jersey Reentry Corporation in Newark. “I’m like, institutionalized. I got to break myself out of that,” he said.
It’s not the only adjustment Arnold, 27, has faced as he begins five years on parole. Like other formerly incarcerated people served by the New Jersey Reentry Corporation, one of Arnold’s biggest challenges has been finding employment with a criminal record.
When leaving prison, parolees and other ex-offenders struggle not only with the stereotypes associated with having been incarcerated, but also with developing professional skills and navigating a job application process located primarily online. The New Jersey Reentry Corporation, located in Newark, Paterson, Toms River and Jersey City, is trying to ease the transition by training halfway house residents, parolees and other formerly incarcerated people in computer literacy, professionalism, nutrition and other life skills. The organization’s close collaboration with the state of New Jersey allows it to do what other programs can’t: providing easy access to welfare programs and a continuum of reentry programming before, during and after release.
Omari Atiba, 50, has been incarcerated since 1987 and is serving the remaining eight months of his sentence in a local halfway house, a facility that helps prisoners transition to the outside world. He said he is grateful to the New Jersey Reentry Program for its help. He has been attending the program for about two months, and said he is still bewildered by the technology involved in applying for a job.
Atiba has applied to about 10 jobs in the past month, and when asked about the application process, he snorts. “Let’s just say I wanted to cry. It was challenging because there’s so much on it,” he said.
Atiba said it took about two weeks to figure out how to register for an email address. And then there was learning how to format, save and send a résumé. After that, there was figuring out how to search a website for job listings, and filling out online applications, many of which included quizzes and questionnaires.
For a man who has yet to learn how to use a cell phone, it was a challenge that was made nearly impossible by living in a halfway house. Atiba said that the lack of internet access, and strict rules about curfews and midday check-ins kept him out of the running for many jobs.
Arnold, who stayed in various halfway houses before his parole began, agreed. He felt that he lost an offer to work at a laundry service because of stereotypes about people in the criminal justice system.
Arnold said he felt he was at a disadvantage because his halfway house didn’t let him leave the facility to apply for jobs in person. “They know I’m coming from prison, they don’t know what to expect from me, they don’t exactly know nothing about me, they can’t sit face to face with me,” he said.
In a survey of 175 employers in 2008, the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development found that 81 percent of employers considered repeat offenses and the type of offense to be very important factors when considering whether to hire a former prisoner. A majority of survey respondents were also concerned about workplace violence, theft, poor attitude and negative customer perceptions.
Jeran Crawford, an employment specialist at the New Jersey Reentry Corporation’s location at the Newark Conservancy, said: “The struggle is very evident. As ex-offenders they deal with rejection and the label of being unemployable because of their convictions.”
Crawford said that more than 100 parolees, halfway house residents and other people with criminal convictions, mostly recent offenders, have participated in the organization’s training programs since its inception in November 2015. Many of them have successfully found employment.
Crawford said that the New Jersey Reentry Corporation’s close collaboration with the state of New Jersey has increased the program’s effectiveness. He credits the organization’s chairman of the board, former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey, with having the political connections necessary to arrange comprehensive services for clients. Those services include better access to welfare programs like food stamps and Medicaid, as well as help obtaining state identification from the Department of Motor Vehicles.
This type of cooperation is rare, but necessary to provide better services to ex-offenders, said John Rakis, a consultant who has worked in criminal justice for decades and who trains corrections departments across the country.
While nonprofit organizations, job agencies and parole officers share the same goal of finding employment for parolees, they don’t often approach the task in the same way, said Rakis. He believes that parole and probation officers, who work for the state, need to work more closely with organizations in order to provide the best services to parolees and other ex-offenders.
“They have to be trained together so everyone’s playing with the same sheet of music, so to speak,” he said.
Parole and probation officers have the ability to enforce behaviors that nonprofit organizations and job agencies can’t control, said Rakis. Through house visits and mandatory drug testing, parole and probation officers can help ensure that ex-offenders are maintaining curfew and abstaining from drugs and alcohol. “The typical employment program doesn’t have the ability to do those kinds of things,” said Rakis.
On the other hand, nonprofit organizations and job agencies can help parolees in a way that corrections employees can’t, said Rakis. “They can provide that sort of career guidance, put somebody on a career track, have that sort of in-depth knowledge of labor market information so that they can help the person identify what their interests are,” he said.
A job agency or nonprofit may find a parolee a job that suits his needs and interests, but a parole officer might not let the parolee take the job because it violates curfew. Or, a parole officer might not understand the amount of training necessary for a certain job.
“It doesn’t matter how good that agency is, if parole and probation don’t share the same values or have the same goals and objectives, it doesn’t really work very effectively,” Rakis said.
It’s important to provide training consistently, starting while a prisoner is still in custody and continuing after he has been released, said Grant Duwe, director of research at the Minnesota Department of Corrections. “When we look at most employment programs for offenders, they’re either delivered exclusively through the institution, or they’re delivered exclusively within the community after the offender gets released,” he said.
Providing a “continuum of service” reinforces reentry training provided within the correction system, and makes later training more effective, said Duwe. “That’s a common thread we see running through effective correctional programs,” he said.
Crawford said that the collaboration between the New Jersey Reentry Corporation and the state Department of Corrections often results in the state referring ex-offenders to directly to the program, and that this collaboration contributes to the program’s holistic approach.
“You need to make someone more self-sufficient and self-sustaining. Those are the things that we touch on that I’m not sure other programs would touch,” he said.