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In Baltimore, more employers hiring formerly incarcerated people

Running out of a church basement in East Baltimore, the nonprofit Turnaround Tuesday has a high success rate of finding jobs for formerly incarcerated people. Its organizers focus on two main tasks: showing people that their past experiences provide unique work-related skills and helping employers let go of stigmas about people with criminal records. Supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, a journalism nonprofit, NewsHour Weekend’s Saskia de Melker reports.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    If you commit a crime and then do your time, you might think you've paid your debt to society. But having a criminal record haunts the resumes of millions of Americans, who find, perhaps not surprisingly, employers aren't eager to hire them. Enter a four-year old program in Baltimore that's trying to change the odds for ex-offenders who are out of prison and ready to work. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Saskia de Melker has our story, which was supported in part by the non-profit Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

  • COLLIE THOMAS:

    Let's see. I probably could wear this.

  • SASKIA DE MELKER:

    52 year old Collie Thomas is trying to find just the right outfit. She's got an interview for a promotion at work.

  • COLLIE THOMAS:

    I'm nervous because I'm excelling. When you excel it gets more challenging and more challenging.

  • SASKIA DE MELKER:

    Just a few years ago, this would have been a distant dream. Thomas was desperately trying to get any job.

  • COLLIE THOMAS:

    Oh my goodness, I searched and I searched. I was in the papers, I was on the computers. My girlfriends, they took me to different places to fill out applications.

  • SASKIA DE MELKER:

    But time after time, she says she got the same response.

  • COLLIE THOMAS:

    Ms. Thomas, you have a criminal background. We don't hire people with criminal backgrounds. I felt like, wow, I'm not going to ever get a job.

  • SASKIA DE MELKER:

    In 2013, Thomas had returned home to Baltimore after serving ten years in prison for a murder that she says was domestic violence related.

  • COLLIE THOMAS:

    I knew it was going to be hard for me to get a job. And it was at the beginning, it really was. So that's when my daughter told me about Turnaround Tuesday.

  • SASKIA DE MELKER:

    Every Tuesday, city residents who have struggled to find employment come to this church basement in East Baltimore.

  • MELVIN WILSON:

    If you come here and do everything that we ask you to do, we can almost guarantee you a job, but you gotta come.

  • SASKIA DE MELKER:

    Turnaround Tuesday is a non-profit program that helps people who are hard to employ find work, mainly those with criminal records.Since the program began in 2014, Co-Director Melvin Wilson says it has found jobs for more than 450 Baltimore residents.

  • MELVIN WILSON:

    There are a lot of people in this community that have been connected to the criminal justice system. We believe that the crimes problem is a jobs problem and the jobs problem is a crime problem.

  • SASKIA DE MELKER:

    These are the statistics.

    In the Baltimore neighborhoods where Turnaround Tuesday operates, the incarceration rate is about four times higher than the national average.

    They also have higher than average unemployment: nearly half of people aged 16 to 64 are not working.

  • MELVIN WILSON:

    People come home, there's no opportunities for them. Many people have been at home, and still been out of work for three or four years. Employers have not opened their arms for ex-offenders to come to work.

  • SASKIA DE MELKER:

    Wilson says once employers run a background check or see gaps in employment indicating a criminal history, they don't want to take what they see as a risk in hiring an ex-offender.

  • MELVIN WILSON:

    The risk is the label that society has put on folks. That people who have been arrested are lazy, or their work ethic, they're not going to show up on time. They're going to bring conflict to the workplace.

    They've got to be twice as good as everybody else. Because the expectations are that they're going to fail.

  • TERRELL WILLIAMS:

    I had to realize I am valued. Growing up the way I didn't, I never felt valued. Today, can't nobody beat me.

  • Saskia de Melker:

    Terrell Williams is Turnaround Tuesday's other co-director. He leads weekly lessons in workplace social skills.

  • TERRELL WILLIAMS:

    How to do individual meetings, public-private relationships, what is leadership, how do you handle conflict; Everything that we do is about presentation. When you ask a question, or make a comment, you stand up, you give your name.

    When you think about all the tension and stress that we go through on a daily basis, you better be able to laugh.

  • SASKIA DE MELKER:

    Williams says being away from society and labeled a criminal means ex-offenders often lack the confidence and communication skills that are critical in work environments. But the structure of prison can also help them transition to the workplace.

  • TERRELL WILLIAMS:

    There is data that suggests that people have been in prison and come out, they do far better, at the entry level, they do far better than people who are just in the community, and coming to apply for a job, because they are already institutionalized, they are used to taking orders.

  • COLLIE THOMAS:

    I'm a motivator. I like to motivate people

  • TERRELL WILLIAMS:

    See dig inside of yourelf. Don't be afraid of telling people your story. I want to hire you if you feel confident in you.

    We say don't run from your story, run to your story, use your story as an instrument to pierce the heart of the interviewer, because if the interviewer can understand where you came from, and they can understand that now you're on the road to turning your life around, what better person could you have?

  • COLLIE THOMAS:

    I have 14 years clean in addiction. Um, I'm a nurturer, I'm good with people

  • TERRELL WILLIAMS:

    And that's a good place to use yourself.

  • SASKIA DE MELKER:

    Thomas has spent countless hours with Williams working on how to tell a hiring manager about her crime, how she overcame struggles with substance abuse and trauma, and her incarceration.

    She also learned how to build a resume with the jobs that she did behind bars. Turnaround Tuesday actually encourages people to include their prison work experience.

  • COLLIE THOMAS:

    I worked hard in there, but for a dollar a day. We started at 6, didn't get off till 2, did laundry from 3 to 8. 9:00 I was going out to the kitchen and working in the older yard for the officers.

  • SASKIA DE MELKER:

    But coaching ex-offenders like Collie Thomas is only half the solution, says Williams.

  • TERRELL WILLIAMS:

    It really is about changing the hearts and minds of those that are in positions to give people jobs.

  • SASKIA DE MELKER:

    That's why Williams and Wilson have been forming relationships with Baltimore employers asking them to give ex-offenders a fair shot.

  • TERRELL WILLIAMS:

    We had to say to them, if we vet the people, will you at least give them an interview? That's all we wanted.

  • SASKIA DE MELKER:

    Johns Hopkins was the first to sign on. Between its medical center and university, it's the largest private employer in Baltimore and its hospital is just a mile from the neighborhood where Turnaround Tuesday meets.

    Hopkins is also where Collie Thomas finally landed a job as housekeeper two and a half years ago. She still remembers the moment.

  • COLLIE THOMAS:

    I actually cried first. Because I was given a second chance. They didn't judge me on my criminal history. And I told them I'd give them my all because I appreciate the second chance of having this job.

  • YARIELA KERR-DONOVAN:

    Johns Hopkins and Baltimore city are inextricably connected. We need to have every able-bodied person who's able to work working in this city.

  • SASKIA DE MELKER:

    Yariela Kerr-Donovan is Johns Hopkins Director of Strategic Workforce Development. She says Hopkins' effort to hire ex-offenders started because of a shortage of workers to fill jobs ranging from administrative support staff to community health workers.

    Ex-offenders are becoming increasingly essential at Hopkins. On average, 5 to 10 percent of their annual hires have a criminal record.

  • YARIELA KERR-DONOVAN:

    We are still doing our due diligence in screening and hiring. We have not compromised our standards. The key point is making sure that whatever their infraction was or whatever that caused them to go to prison doesn't create a conflict or a risk for the job to which they've applied.

  • SASKIA DE MELKER:

    A 2009 internal study at Hopkins found that turnover among employees with records is lower than among employees without records for the first three years of employment.

  • YARIELA KERR-DONOVAN:

    The individuals who may have made those mistakes and are coming back, they appreciate and recognize the value of the employment and the career opportunities that are here. They've been to a place they don't ever want to go back to, so they work very hard to be successful

  • SASKIA DE MELKER:

    While many ex-offenders come in at the entry level as Collie Thomas did, they earn living wages: Thomas started in 2015 at $11.68 an hour plus benefits. They are also provided with access to educational and career training to help them move up and fill high need positions in the ever growing healthcare industry.

  • COLLIE THOMAS:

    Already I saw a cart that needed it in there and it's not even in there, so…

  • SASKIA DE MELKER:

    Less than a year into her initial job as a housekeeper, Thomas was promoted to unit associate on the hospital's critical care ward.

  • COLLIE THOMAS:

    We transport patients. We make sure each patient at each room have all the necessary supplies that's needed.

  • SASKIA DE MELKER:

    Now she's looking to make her next career move at Hopkins. That interview that she's been prepping for is to becomes a peer recovery specialist: someone who offers resources to those who are struggling with issues that she herself has dealt with, like substance abuse and domestic violence.

  • YARIELA KERR-DONOVAN:

    Imagine, something that was this negative thing in your life and caused you pain is the thing that's going to be someone else's redemption through you, someone else's support.

  • SASKIA DE MELKER:

    At least nine Baltimore employers, ranging from healthcare to construction to transportation services, have interviewed or hired ex-offenders from Turnaround Tuesday. That includes the University of Maryland Medical System and Medstar Health, Baltimore's other top private employers.

  • MELVIN WILSON:

    We want you to stay engaged. We're going to stay engaged with you for two years but we also want you to take ownership of this city.

  • SASKIA DE MELKER:

    Even after people are hired, Turnaround Tuesday continues to coach them and make sure they are succeeding on the job.

  • MELVIN WILSON:

    Our model has proven to be successful. We are currently experiencing about an 83 percent retention rate for the individuals that come to Turnaround Tuesday that are working.

  • SASKIA DE MELKER:

    It has expanded to a second meeting location in West Baltimore. And one of its best recruiters is Collie Thomas.

  • MELVIN WILSON:

    She's probably personally been responsible for bringing, probably 25 to 30 people to Turnaround Tuesday, many of which have gotten jobs.

  • COLLIE THOMAS:

    Sometimes I come in from work and I sit in the kitchen, I say, wow. Wow. Because I remember times, it's emotional. But I remember it was times when I used to sit in my cell. Coming home to my home, my own home again, this is what I work hard for.

Editor’s Note: This piece was supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

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