Environmental training programs can play a major role in transforming both the prison system and the communities most affected by the system. A prime example is San Quentin’s Insight Prison Garden Program. San Quentin partners with Planting Justice to provide master gardener training to inmates while they’re incarcerated, as well as to offer job placement after release.
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A day for the inmates in the program starts at 5:30 a.m. when they take their dogs out for the morning walk. They spend the rest of the day training the dogs, cleaning kennels, feeding and bathing them. The day ends with the last walk at 9 p.m. Afterward, the pups are put in kennels at the foot of each inmate’s bed for the night.
In Denver, Colorado, Mile High WorkShop wants to be the first employer of record for a string of former inmates. Inside a 12,000-square-foot warehouse, those employees handle woodworking, sewing, and order fulfillment, and they manufacture ceramic components. In just two years, 50 people have moved through the company, with half finding permanent employment; just two have reoffended.
In a 2014 study by the National Endowment for the Arts called The Prison Arts Resource Project, the authors conducted an evaluation of 48 evidence-based studies that evaluated the impact of arts programs in U.S. prisons. Many of the studies found that inmates who participated in arts programs showed significant increases in motivation, self confidence, self-esteem, and work ethic.
“We don’t want to be draconian and bar people from having another chance in life. But we don’t want licenses to wind up in the hands of people who can do damage,” said Erica Moeser, the recently retired executive director of the National Conference of Bar Examiners, which conducts applicant background checks for about half the states.
Juvenile facilities are increasingly offering opportunities to young people to focus on training and development of vocational skills. However, without post-release support and logistical training, education alone does not ensure youthful offenders a viable career path.
Cindy Stubbs is one of a small number of former prisoners who have returned to penitentiaries as employees after their release. At least 30 states have policies to allow such hiring, though they do not necessarily track how many they have brought aboard. But a few agencies are beginning to formalize programs, with the explicit goal of reducing the stigma that can follow ex-prisoners as they look for jobs.
Having a defendant work in the community and do something positive rather than sitting in jail is something Fairfield County Municipal Court Judge James Fields said benefits the individual and the community alike.
The government doesn’t regularly collect data on employment for people with criminal records. But private-sector sources suggest that companies have become more willing to consider hiring them. Data from Burning Glass showed that 7.9 percent of online job postings indicated that a criminal-background check was required, down from 8.9 percent in 2014.
Open Door Tea Shop owner Kristen Cardenas selects artwork from current inmates, sells them and sends all of the money to their families. The idea stems from her nonprofit Denver Arts and Skills Center, which provides a safe environment for ex-offenders to work with trained art therapists.