Second chances and opportunities

Second chances and opportunities

Recently, the Washington State Health Care Authority approached CI with interest in publishing an article highlighting CI's program. The following article was published in the Health Care Authority's newsletter and highlights not only CI's program, but the relationship between our two agencies and benefits seen by both.

Andrew is a man on a mission to improve himself. He works hard at his accounts receivable job, always asking questions to learn more about the business world โ€” he wants to learn everything he can. Recently he wrote a database to track incoming jobs, costs and materials. He buys books about how to program computers and devours them in his spare time. He took community college accounting classes. He takes every opportunity he can to gain experience and prepare himself to get a good job when he gets out of prison

Andrew made some bad mistakes when he was 17. Now he's 37, and has been in prison almost 20 years. He figured out soon after he started his sentence that he wanted to change his life, and he's been working toward that ever since. Now he works as a clerk at the front desk of the warehouse at Correctional Industries, the state's work program for offenders.

In less than a year he'll leave prison behind and get on with his life. Correctional Industries is helping him do that.

"I don't want to work at McDonald's," Andrew said. "I have a goal to work in a business office. I wanted a career path, so I built my own."

"Correctional Industries (CI) was founded in the early 1980s to develop businesses that could put offenders in Washington prisons to work so they could learn skills to help them get jobs when they're released. CI now has 22 different lines of business, from making and refurbishing furniture, to sewing uniforms, to manufacturing sheets and pillow cases. The program offers a laundry list of products and services to state agencies at low rates."

At Health Care Authority, you're probably familiar with some of the ways we take advantage of this program, although you might not realize it. We buy office furniture from Correctional Industries. We hire crews of workers to help us reconfigure existing furniture and install new office furniture. Correctional Industries translates documents into Braille. And our Apple Health providers can buy eyeglasses for their patients made by Correctional Industries for just $25.

You'll recognize offenders from Correctional Industries by their red shirts and beige pants. They're occasionally in the building during work hours. They always have supervisors from the Department of Corrections with them.

Correctional Industries pulls offsite offender crews from Cedar Creek Corrections Center, a minimum security facility located in the Capital Forest, which houses offenders with four or fewer years to serve. To qualify for a Correctional Industries job, offenders must have a high school diploma or equivalent or be working towards their diploma and have no major infractions for a year. Sex offenders are not eligible for offsite crew positions. Offenders have to apply for positions, and are not guaranteed a CI job. And all applicants are vetted, to make sure the job is a good fit and the applicant is ready. Some positions have waiting lists.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons and every state except Alaska have similar programs. Washington's is the sixth largest by percentage of offenders employed in the country, with 10 percent of offenders working CI jobs.

CI's real product is getting the offenders out in the community," said Danielle Armbruster, CI director. "They learn job skills, and many earn certificates. But they also learn soft skills, like getting themselves to work on time, work ethics, accepting criticism, and tolerating other people's points of view."

Andrew is appreciative of the opportunity to perform professionally. "In the other prison jobs, it's not a real-world job experience," he said. "The supervisors tell you exactly what to do, how to do it, when to do it. You don't get a chance to think for yourself. But working in CI, you're left to figure out how to accomplish a task. You need to be trusted in your job." You get out of it what you put into it, he added.

"It's a great experience for me," Andrew said. "At CI, they treat you more like you're a real person than anywhere else in prison."

Every former offender trying to get a job faces the challenge of having to admit they were in prison. That's a mark against them, no matter what they do or how sincere their desire to be a contributing member of society. CI helps them get ready for that, and gives them tools to overcome the discrimination they're certain to face.

During the last 18 months of their sentences, offenders get help with writing resumes and practicing interview skills. Once released, selected offenders have the opportunity to receive continued training and employment support through CI's partner organizations, FareStart and Goodwill of Olympic and Rainier Region, which have programs for hard-to-employ people.

National studies have shown that job programs like Correctional Industries work. Offenders are 14 percent less likely to re-offend. The number of CI offenders working three years after release is four times higher than the number of offenders that don't participate in CI programs.

And it's a good deal for taxpayers. For every dollar spent on CI, there's a $4.74 return to taxpayers โ€” measured by less crime and less expense in courts and prisons. It costs an average of $32,000 to incarcerate an offender in Washington State โ€” money that's saved if offenders don't go back to prison.

CI is self-supporting. It pays for the salaries and benefits of 345 staff members, materials and expenses, and the paychecks of 1,800 offenders.

State agencies save money on the products and services they get from CI. And an estimated $32.2 million is contributed to the Washington economy through purchases from local suppliers and staff salaries. By state law, CI doesn't compete with the private market. Armbruster said Correctional Industries looks for opportunities to provide something that's not available locally, and it tries to source the raw materials locally, if possible.

Offenders make between 55ยข and $2.60 an hour, and have to use what they earn to repay anything they may owe for child support and any court-ordered obligations. They are required to save 10 percent and pay 15 percent toward the cost of incarceration and 15 percent to a crime victim compensation fund. An estimated $1.1 million annually is paid to these obligations from CI earnings. The 20 percent left is theirs to keep. But it's not the paycheck that motivates offenders to participate. It's the chance to do better. To develop self-esteem. To be treated professionally.

"Our job is to help them be better people, give them a second chance at life," said Armbruster, a longtime CI employee. "This is a way of life for some of our staff." She said the staff tries to mentor the offenders and model good on-the-job behavior. "They see how we interact with each other," she said. "We take the extra step to teach and mentor, not just supervise." Both offenders and staff take Lean training.

Asked how Health Care Authority staff should treat CI work crews, Andrew said, "Don't be apprehensive. They're not going to bring anyone who doesn't act right. The offenders are conscious of the rules. They're not supposed to interact with your staff. If someone asks a question they'll refer to the supervisor."

Later Andrew summed it up. "I don't want to be judged on a mistake I made a long time ago. I want to be judged on what I'm doing. I'm attempting to make large changes in my life. I don't want to come back to prison. I just want to be treated as normal."