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Former Inmates Are Getting Jobs As Employers Ignore Stigma In Bright Economy05:43
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Ichard Oden works at an apartment complex under construction in Westland, Mich. (Elaine Cromie for NPR)
Ichard Oden works at an apartment complex under construction in Westland, Mich. (Elaine Cromie for NPR)

In 1998, Ichard Oden committed a crime that got him sent away for two decades. He was 19.

He got out of prison in February. Today, he's a 40-year-old man with very little job experience.

As it turns out, Oden is coming back into society at a time when the economy is booming and attitudes toward people with criminal records are changing.

Unemployment in the Detroit metro area has fallen dramatically, to 4.4% from more than 17% just 10 years ago. Nationwide, it's dropped to a 50-year low of 3.6%. Many employers say they can't find enough workers. And for Oden and 20 million or so Americans with a felony record, that might mean a much better shot at getting a job and reintegrating into society.

In an increasingly polarized America, the reintegration of felons is a rare issue that has brought together people from very different political backgrounds.

The Obama administration launched the Fair Chance Business Pledge to eliminate barriers for people with a criminal record. Part of that initiative was "banning the box," the part of a job application that asks if prospective employees have a criminal record. Companies including Google, Starbucks and Coca-Cola signed the pledge. And so far, 35 states have adopted a version of the ban.

With the First Step Act, the Trump administration also has committed to improving the lives of people with criminal records, including offering better education programs to prepare them for release. Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump have made it one of their marquee causes.

Pedro Rivera, 51, carries a wooden structure after helping disassemble part of a roof during the woodworking and carpentry portion of a Vocational Village program at a correctional facility in Ionia, Mich. The skilled trades training program also includes education for plumbing, carpentry and more. (Elaine Cromie for NPR)

Charles and David Koch, the billionaire libertarian political donors who have made contributions to Republicans have championed it. Mark Holden, senior vice president of Stand Together, an anti-poverty group funded by Koch, says now is the perfect time to change things.

"There's such a need for skilled labor in particular. That stigma's wearing off. ... When employers see ... there's people coming out of prison who have those skills, they're going to be willing to take a chance," Holden says. Companies can also get a significant tax break for hiring people who have been convicted of a felony.

But had Oden been released 10 years ago, this could have been a different story. People in Michigan still speak about the Great Recession with a shudder, like remembering a plague. Unemployment in the state peaked at just under 15%.

Back then, getting a job felt nearly impossible for most people, let along those with a felony record. Many people who have served time will tell you the sentence isn't really over when you walk out of prison. The stigma is something you carry for the rest of your life. It's harder to rent an apartment. Companies shy away from hiring you. Robby Grant from Lansing, Mich., calls it "the other F-word": felony.

Grant knows all about this. He was a salesman for years but started stealing to feed a drug addiction. He was caught, and it ended up on his criminal record. No one wanted to hire him. "You kind of get to a place where you feel like maybe you don't deserve ... you aren't going to get a second chance. You are never going to get a chance to redeem yourself," Grant says.

He fell into a deep depression, and his addiction spiraled out of control. He was caught breaking into a house and was sent to prison in 2016. He ended up at the Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility in Michigan.

Grant's story is pretty common. Activists say difficulty finding employment is one reason why felons often fall back into crime: If you've been to prison, there is a 40% chance you are heading there again within the next three years. It's especially troubling considering that, as of 2010, 33% of black men in America had a felony conviction.

Two men walk toward a block of cells inside the Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia, Mich. (Elaine Cromie for NPR)

"We're creating a permanent underclass of workers who don't have the same opportunities as others," says Rebecca Vallas, vice president for the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the left-leaning Center for American Progress. The center is currently promoting the Clean Slate campaign to automatically erase people's records after a certain amount of years. States such as Utah and Pennsylvania already have adopted versions of it.

The tight labor market isn't just making employers more open to hiring people with criminal records: Many companies are visiting prisons to recruit inmates who will be released soon.

"I've been here 21 years. I never thought I would have seen this," says Heidi Washington, director of the Michigan Department of Corrections. The state boasts a robust program called Vocational Village, which trains about 400 prisoners at a time, in trades including welding, machine operating and trucking.

Grant studies carpentry at Handlon's Vocational Village. If all goes well, he will be released in the coming months and will get a job doing carpentry. He says he's eager to be with his son. When he talks about it, he tears up behind his safety goggles.

Washington says there's a really good chance he will land a job, given that in just the past few months "about 95% of everybody who left Vocational Village had a job before they left."

Garry Means, 51, helps disassemble part of a roof during the woodworking and carpentry portion of Vocational Village. (Elaine Cromie for NPR)

While this is great news, the local carpenters union has raised concern over people coming out of prison and getting paid less than the $16 an hour beginners wage at nonunion jobs. "People are still being exploited," says Juan Ortiz, a representative of the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights.

On a chilly, gray spring morning in Detroit, Ortiz is at a job fair for carpenters. It's packed with eager employers and prospective employees.

Juan Ortiz, of the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights, was once incarcerated. The union representative believes in helping other formerly incarcerated people find work that pays well. (Elaine Cromie for NPR)

Chris Dickerson is a senior manager at Manic Construction, which provides wood framing for construction. "The projects just keep coming in," he says. "We just have to pass stuff up because we don't have the manpower."

Oden says he has loved carpentry since he was a kid. He remembers building treehouses and basketball hoops with scrap wood he found around his neighborhood without anyone teaching him how to. He smiles and shrugs when he says that in Detroit, that's just what you do: You build stuff.

As a teenager, Oden became part of the wave of crime that took over the city. His crime was a brutal one. He and several other men kidnapped and murdered someone. Oden was convicted and sentenced to up to 45 years but was released early on parole.

Objects and tools along with wooden birdhouses, signs, a wine rack and other decorative pieces sit on display inside the woodworking and carpentry shop as part of the Vocational Village. (Elaine Cromie for NPR)

As the end of his sentence approached, Oden was given a vocational test. He laughs when he says it found he had a high aptitude for being a policeman. Less surprisingly, it also found he was fit to be a carpenter. He enrolled in the Vocational Village.

Despite the training, Oden was apprehensive when he left prison in February.

"I never pictured myself being in prison all the time," Oden says. "I always pictured myself being out of prison. So, prison wasn't in me. But being free was."

Despite the training, Oden was apprehensive when he left prison in February. But he often thought of being back in the world. (Elaine Cromie for NPR)

The day after he got out, he contacted the union. About a week later, the group sent him to a construction site.

He says when he got on the site, a manager asked him, "What can you do?"

"Whatever you want me to do," Oden responded.

He got hired that same day.

Copyright NPR 2019.

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