Summit focuses on jobs for ex-inmates

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  • Kyle Robertson | DISPATCH PHOTOS
    William Meeks, left, picks out a suit with the help of Jay Mulligan during the Restored Citizens Summit. The event was held Aug. 15 at the Center for Workforce Development at Columbus State Community College.

August 28, 2013

A little more than six months ago, William Meeks was released from prison and sent to the Franklin County Community Based Correction Facility, a 200-bed minimum-security center, to prepare for life after incarceration.

He’s done time twice and says he’s determined never to return.

“I’m tired of going to jail,” said Meeks, whose most-recent sentence was for aggravated robbery.

“My main concern now is a job and child support,” he said.

Meeks was one of about 250 former inmates who recently attended Restored Citizens Summit 2013, sponsored by the Ohio Development Services Agency and several other organizations that offer services to released prisoners. One of the goals was to help them on the road to employment.

“It’s a struggle and will always be a struggle, but I have a lot of support,” said Meeks, a truck driver before his incarceration.

About 1.9 million Ohioans have criminal records that can be a roadblock to employment.

“They’re stereotyped because they made a mistake,” said Dana Davis, who runs Turn it Around Transportation Services. “And the way the economy is now, that makes it very hard.”

Turn it Around Transportation provides transportation to these ex-offenders trying to get to jobs in areas not served by COTA buses.

At the Restored Citizens event, workshops were offered on preparing for an interview and starting a business. There was also a room filled with job-interview-appropriate clothing for both men and women; many don’t have suitable attire.

“You need a positive attitude and you should have faith, because it will be a struggle,” Davis said.

These men and women made a mistake, served their time and deserve a chance to turn their lives around, she said.

“Housing, employment and transportation are their three biggest problems,” Davis said.

The overall theme of the summit was entrepreneurship as a way to address the challenge of finding work when you’re compelled to acknowledge on job applications that you have a prison record.

“When you have to check that box, you’re automatically derailed away from that job,” said Steve McClure, who was released from prison in February.

“I’ve been out 182 days,” he said. “I’m never going back, and I’m never sitting in the back of a police car again.”

Soon after he was released, McClure began doing some marketing work and recently started a company, MultiMedia Services. He’s also an author, and says an agent is shopping his novel, The Ugly Lawyer.

He also works as a mentor for Teaching Opportunity Unity by Connecting Hearts, or T.O.U.C.H., a Whitehall-based group that provides services for those formerly incarcerated.

Meeks’ advice for all those in prison is simple: “Use any resource you can find there, starting from Day One, get a plan together and start breaking down some of those barriers that make recidivism so high.”

The rate of those freed who get locked up again is at an all-time low of 28.7 percent, according to a February report by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. It covered the 26,264 inmates released in 2009 for the next three years.

The national recidivism rate is more than 40 percent.

The unemployment rate for former prisoners is harder to come by.

“We do not track the unemployment rate for ex-offenders, and we’re not aware of any agency that does,” said Ben Johnson, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.

He did reference a 2010 study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research that says, “A felony conviction or time in prison makes individuals significantly less employable.”

Weslee Pullen doesn’t hide the fact that he’s a drug addict and former inmate.

“It’s who I am,” he said. “I’m a drug addict and felon, and I tell the world. But I (have) dealt with it.”

The day before the summit marked 19 years of sobriety for Pullen. He worked for the Urban League for 11 years and in 2010 started Rezilyantz Project, a nonprofit group that provides services for ex-offenders.

“When I was locked up, I didn’t see enough African-American males who were role models,” he said. “I want to be the voice for these people.”

His goal is to turn negative behavior into positive behavior.

Meeks is working on that, too, at the Franklin County Community Based Correction Facility.

“When I first hit the program, it meant nothing to me and no one could tell me what to do,” he said. Now, he’s changed his attitude.

“They teach you that every day you have to better yourself or you’ll wind up incarcerated again. And that’s what I’m doing.”

swartenberg@dispatch.com

@stevewartenberg