Employers urged to “Hire For Change”
A special event in Clarinda was recently held to change some perceptions on hiring ex-offender.
Hiring for Change is the largest event of its kind inside held in an Iowa prison, bringing together inmates and businesses. The event was an interactive conference designed to break down misconceptions about ex-offenders, and increase understanding between employers and ex-offenders.
The day included a re-entry simulation, business panel discussion, personality workshop, guided discussion between inmates and service providers, a testimonial from a former inmate, and concluded with a keynote address by Kyle Horn of Iowa Job Honor Awards.
The re-entry simulation, facilitated by staff from Central Iowa Works in Des Moines, provided an opportunity for businesses to experience a month in the life of a person re-entering the community upon their release from prison. During the re-entry simulation, 26 current inmates at CCF played the role of various service providers and businesses.
Lana McMann, human resource manager at Johnson Controls’ Red Oak facility, attended the Hiring for Change event, which dramatically shifted her perspective on hiring ex-offenders.
“The workshop was completely not what I had anticipated. It was enlightening to say the least. The simulation they had us participate in really helped make us civilians realize the responsibilities that are placed on these offenders when they are released back into society. There were numerous hurdles to overcome in a very short amount of time. A person can see why offenders sometimes fail by returning to their old ways because of the hurdles they must go through once they are on parole,” McMann said.
According to McMann, those attending were presented with success stories of offenders who made the necessary changes in their lives to become productive members of society.
“They had a real life civilian speak to us who used to be a convicted criminal at that very facility. What was even crazier was that person grew up five miles from my home. I had no idea that he’d spent three years in prison for drug offenses. His story was an example of ordinary people getting caught up in life that caused him to make some bad choices. He paid his price, and he’s grown from the life lesson. Again another example of a criminal several years ago, who is now a very engaged member of society,” commented McMann.
McMann added eating lunch with the four offenders at her table was another event that continued to open up her perspective and release some stereotypes of “criminals.” The four she was speaking to had different offenses and were willing to express why they were in prison. One had a DUI and had eluded the police, which got him a three-year sentence. McMann said what the offender did was wrong, and looking at him she would never had known he was a convicted criminal.
“If he had the skill sets needed for a position at our facility I would not have any hesitation in hiring him. Another was a theft charge, assaulting an officer, and he admitted to being under the influence of drugs. The other one also noted his domestic violence situation was a result of methamphetamine use. One noted that the majority of offenses for the offenders in the correctional facility is due to drug addictions. They made the wrong choices in life and they are paying for those mistakes with every intent of never making them again. They seemed very genuine, and sincere that they never want to go down their old paths. We discussed the challenges they will face to ensure they remain drug free,” McMann said.
After lunch, the group watched another presentation that gave data, facts regarding Iowa’s unemployment situation. More success stories of offenders being hired for the openings employers’ are struggling to fill due to the low unemployment rate. The group also took part in an employer panel. The employers spoke about their experience of hiring work release offenders into their businesses. McMann said they talked about the benefits and some obstacles as well. One example was a company who needed seasonal help, and utilizing the work release offenders was a great match for their hiring situation. The money these offenders earn helps them pay back their restitutions, and build a small savings account to prepare them for their future needs of housing, utilities, and transportation.
As the workshop closed, McMann said they shook hands with these offenders. She was surprised at how, in a matter of hours, she went from feeling intimidated to feeling at ease.
“Obviously the offenders selected were the ones most likely to succeed. These offenders are still human beings who have been given a different set of cards in life to deal with. The reality today is there are so many individuals being raised in so many diverse situations and environments. I’m not making up excuses because I’m a firm believer in we all make choices in life and those choices will provided different outcomes. However I do believe that some, given the opportunity, will make better choices in their futures,” commented McMann. “The message I received from this workshop was to consider giving a person with a criminal record a chance to interview, and a chance to discuss their situation. To not be too quick to judge based on that criminal charge. There was no sales pitch just information given for us to receive and make our own judgments if this population of future workforce could be a fit for our work environment. Will every hire be successful? No, but that is true today with individuals who don’t have a criminal record as well. As an HR Manager attendance is the weakest life skill we find in most of our hires. Maybe giving a person who is needing a job an opportunity will prevent them from becoming a repeat offender.”
Montgomery County Development Corportation director Shawnna Silvius also participated in the event after receiving an invitation from IowaWorks representative April Hughes. Like McCann, Silvius said the workshop allowed her to get to know the inmates and hear their stories on a more personal basis, as well as provide assistance to someone soon to be released.
“I met a dozen or so during the simulation activity. But it was the luncheon where I had an opportunity to carry on interesting conversations with several. The Warden and Deputy Warden also brought over one gentleman who they introduced to me. He will be released in the next month, and he’s known throughout the prison as the most talented welder. He gave me his resume and I have passed it onto several of our Red Oak employers,” Silvius said. “His training and experience while in the apprenticeship program in the prison is quite extensive and impressive. In talking with him and two others over lunch, I feel at least he and one other have put a great deal of thought into their previous decisions and external responsibilities awaiting them. They both clearly expressed their lessons learned while yet sharing the clear visions of the kind of life they want moving forward for their children, families and themselves.
Silvius added it was quite evident they spent quality time planning their re-entry, learning more about themselves, their skills and interests and on planning a life for others awaiting their return.
“It seemed they made the connection to the value of establishing careers they desire to perform so they can have create consistent and reputable meaning to their daily lives once released; to fill have a job that satisfies the voids they filled in the past with negative behaviors. The attitudes, their self-reflections and enlightening moments, access to career and technical training to develop viable skills that are transferable to local jobs and the desire to rise above their previous shortfalls and what seemed to be motivating them to overcome their past, with a plan they are crafting,” commented Silvius.
Silvius also participated in a simulation which highlighted the difficulties faced by ex-offenders trying to re-enter the work force.
“We had to make decisions with incredible pressure and limitations that are immediately set up for failure. The barriers we learned that exist that they have to overcome was quite enlightening. Just like a poverty simulation, most people absolutely take for granted some basic things that they have to re-establish, like getting adequate identification, paying for child support when they don’t even have a source of income, residence or reliable transportation and having to face up to that one question on an application that most employers never move beyond, “Have you ever been charged with a misdemeanor or felony?” The last thing society should want is for them to fail right out of the gate because they lack a positive support system,” said Silvius.
Following the workshop, Silvius said she felt there were several factors that would be keys to success for the inmates.
“I feel creating a positive circle of trust and influence is the first key to their success, closely coupled with educating our citizens and agencies about the extent of barriers to employment they face and of the highly restrictive and limiting obstacles they are forced to overcome, that most could not accomplish given the same circumstances. It confirmed my belief in the power of mentorship…how critical it is we set up mentoring for all children so fewer end up as ex-offenders. I believe we all need a safe place to fall and person who believes in us no matter what that we can confide in, and just as critical is the power of a positive support system especially for those ‘at risk’, be it youth or ex-offenders,” commented Silvius.
On a personal level, Silvius said it reaffirmed how important it is to put herself in the steps others have to take before she ever judges or criticizes. Professionally, it confirmed her belief that ex-offenders are a viable workforce talent pool available to fill a variety of the jobs employers find difficult to fill.
Hiring for Change was well received by the 48 inmates who participated in the day-long event. One current inmate commented, “I was impressed with the amount of information, and the help that was offered by all the organizations that were there and their willingness to answer some tough questions. The information and contacts I met will help me meet my release goals. Having this information now will help speed up the process later and gives me thoughts for the right questions to ask after my release.”
Scott Plummer, an inmate who participated in the event, said, “It was inspiring. I am not going to avoid good jobs because of my past but instead I will sell myself in the interview by showing them how I’ve changed. It gave me inspiration and hope and confidence.”
For guest speaker Jeff Wardlow, the day was an opportunity to come full circle. Wardlow had been previously been incarcerated at the Clarinda Correctional Facility, and is now successfully employed, and giving back to his community.
”The whole goal of this was to change the perspective of what you view a convicted felon and ex-convict as. Walking through the front door of the very same prison that housed me wasn’t near as scary as I thought it would be. Maybe just knowing I get to go home at the end of the day put me at ease. So it all started with a meet and great with about 50 or 60 employers and several inmates and staff all thinking I was just another employer looking to see and experience what it’s like for a few hours on the inside, when this was my home for three years of my life so I know far too well exactly what it’s like so it was actually kind of funny mingling with them and hearing the small talk of what they thought prison was like and how they can spot a convict a mile away cause they stick out like a sore thumb,” Wardlow said.
Wardlow said the audience expressed great surprise when he revealed he was a former inmate at the prison.
“I got up introduce myself and then rattled off my inmate ID number and informed them that I was a resident at that very same prison for three long years not too long ago. Their faces were priceless! Breaking down to them on how we’re just people, no different from anyone else, just looking for a second chance and for the employers not wanting to hire a felon was only keeping the cycle going and not helping to break it. It was an eye opening experience for all that took part and a learning experience for the ones who judged,” Wardlow stated.
The end of the event, Wardlow said, was what took him by surprise.
“I finished by thanking the staff for allowing me to go there and the workforce for organizing this, as I start to walk away everyone is clapping and then I received a standing ovation for what I shared and so many thank yous for opening the eyes of many who never would’ve changed their outlook had I not done my part and shared with them my success after such a dark time in my life. To top it off being asked by the assistant warden to come back and help teach life skills to soon to be released inmates was the icing on the cake. All in all it was a wonderful experience and can’t wait for the next opportunity to present itself,” said Wardlow.
Stephen Weis, deputy warden at the Clarinda Correctional Facility, commented, “It was a very proud moment for our facility, as we were able to show off our facility and commitment we have to our mission of creating opportunities for safer communities. Again, thank you everyone for making this event an overwhelming success.”