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Second chances: Former prisoners struggle to get back into society

May 2nd, 2013 Posted in Opinion

By Tanner Simmons

LOGAN – Finding a job these days isn’t easy, especially for people who have committed felonies. According to statistics from the Pew Center for the States, more than 1 percent of adult Americans are in prison. The justice system is in place to protect citizens from harm and to enforce consequences for those who violate its laws. Offenders of such laws are not always bad people. In fact, some of them are good people who have simply made poor choices. They must be slowly integrated back into society upon their release from prison. They have lives to live, families to feed and dignity to regain. But despite a person’s character or intent to do good, they will be known as felons and that will make life a bit harder.

Coming back from prison to society

Dustin Russell is a U.S. federal probation officer assigned to the Utah district. He emphasized the process of adjusting to everyday life from confinement isn’t always easy and for some offenders it’s extremely difficult.

“Getting back in the swing of things is pretty tough for a lot of these guys,” Russell said. “I deal with a lot of gang members and it seems that the success rate of staying away from prison and relapsing is much lower than other white-collar criminals. These guys go back to situations where a lot of their friends and surroundings funnel them back into a revolving door of behavior.

“The guys that commit financial fraud and sex offenses do a lot better with supervision once they return to their structured lives,” he said. “No matter what the crime, it’s challenging for any of them to earn the trust of an employer.”

For many who are released from prison, the first step is into a halfway house. Here they can work during the day and return to a regimented housing center at night. Unlike some other cities its size, Logan does not have a halfway house. The Bear River Health Department has information about the centers closest to Logan.

Work release is an opportunity for inmates at county jails to leave jail for the day to go to work,  and is granted by a judge only to those who have full time jobs. According to Russell those other people who are not employed typically look to temporary work agencies.

Opportunities for work release and immediate employment vary depending on if a person is on probation or parole. What’s the difference between the two? Probation is for those who have been given a chance to change their behavior under supervision before a potential prison sentence is imposed by a judge. Parole is for those who have been released from prison by the parole board. Federal judges  impose sentences on those who have broken federal laws, whereas state judges often suspend sentences and place the offender on probation. With the potential of going directly back to jail upon violation of parole, hiring a parolee can be a much greater liability for an employer.

Employers can be skeptical

Ryan, who asked that his last name not be used in this article, is a student at Utah State University who was formerly an inmate at the Federal Correctional Facility in Lompoc, Calif.. He now lives in Logan with a good job, but knows the employment struggles that felons face. When he was first released Ryan was discouraged from applying to jobs where he felt like he would be discriminated against.

“It’s really hard to find work after you’ve been involved with something like that,” he said. “You go to interviews or talk to people and it seems like a great opportunity for both sides but you don’t want to get your hopes up, you know. You might be a great candidate for the job but a lot of places have policies that prohibit them from hiring ex convicts and felons. That, or the boss is hesitant to trust someone who has recently committed a crime. I just wish they could see that I’m a good person but it’s hard to prove that on paper.”

Ryan has been with his current company for more than seven months and said he feels he has been treated really well.

Not every employer has had the same experience.

“We hired a person who had committed a felony a couple years ago,” said JSJ Properties owner Sonia Jarrett. “Unfortunately it did not work out really well for us, but when it comes to hiring I think you have to trust your gut. If you feel like someone is truly sorry for what they’ve done then they deserve a chance to prove to people and themselves that they can be trusted. It is important to me to know that whoever I’m hiring is not a potential threat to me, my other employees, my properties and the tenants. It really just depends on the severity of the crime committed.”

On the bright side, employers are often awarded grant money and receive tax breaks for hiring a former convict with proof that they have been employed for at least 60 days.

There is hope

Utah’s Defendant/Offender Workforce Development is an organization dedicated to helping people in these situations with everything from preparing a resumé to providing references and help with job preparation.  More information about the D.O.W.D. can be found at this link.

Former convicts can also attend group meetings geared towards mental, emotional and physical recovery at the Bear River Health Department located at 655 E. 1300 North in Logan. The substance abuse division is directed by Brock Alder, who feels that the meetings and services offered can really make a difference.

“Our No. 1 goal is to try and help people get clean and sober and live healthier lives,” Alder said. “We want to help them manage their life issues and deal with difficult situations in a positive way.”

These meetings are held weekly at the department and include developing life skills, help with substance abuse, finances, anger management and communication skills.

“We have over 40 total programs between all of our locations,” said Alder. “We invite people to contact us by phone to get find out when they are. The meetings usually cost what people can afford to pay for them. We try and make it so that anyone who needs help can get it, regardless of their financial situation.”

Along with the other programs and legal help previously mentioned, the BRHD can provide a ray of sunshine in an otherwise gloomy future.

“It’s good to know there’s help,” Ryan said. “Everyone makes mistakes and it’s cool that some people are willing to give you a second chance.”

Here are some resources for people who need help:

Personal help

  •  Bear River Health Department, for meeting information: 435-792-6420

Job resources

  •  Intermountain Staffing Resources, 130 S. Main St. #205, Logan. 435-752-9297
  • SOS Employment Group, 155 E. 1400 North #103, Logan. 435-750-0886
  • Kelly Services, 1300 N. 200 East #112, Logan.  435-752-8816
  • Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Employment Center, 175 W. 1400 North # C, Logan. (435) 752-7911


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