The Labor Department will hand out $5 million in grants to fund job centers for people coming out of jails, part of a broader Obama administration initiative to help reduce recidivism, NPR has learned.
"The earlier you start investing in people who are incarcerated, the better the odds of a successful outcome," Labor Secretary Thomas Perez said in an interview.
The new batch of funding means that 41 such grant projects in a number of states have now won federal funding, known as Linking to Employment Activities Pre-release.
The awards come a day after Perez made a stop in New Haven, Conn., to check in on a program that helps formerly incarcerated people re-enter the community.
Perez heard from about a half-dozen inmates at the New Haven Correctional Center. They're part of an onsite program with a goal to prepare people like Liam Daly, from Groton, Conn., to get out with a plan and hopefully a job at the end of his sentence.
"I got 30 days left and go back out," Daly said. "And this workshop, I heard about it so I came down, volunteered to take it, and it's the best move I made. I think it is one door closes, another one opens, so to speak."
The program opened in February. It'll serve 175 inmates who are within six months of the end of their sentence. So far, 34 have completed the curriculum, which includes preparing for job interviews. More than half are now working.
Perez told a group of inmates he's seeing an increase in the number of employers across the country who are willing to hire ex-offenders.
"What they want to see is the ability to work with a team, making sure you're there on time, and that work ethic," Perez said. "I think you all have it. And we're working hard to make sure that there's more employers out there. And the good news is, there are. That's why we're trying to connect with you here, so that you're ready Day 1."
Perez made a second stop where he spoke with ex-offenders and their employers.
"We want to be smart on crime, and the revolving-door system of criminal justice where you lock them up, you give them no training, and you pretend to be surprised when they become frequent fliers in the justice system, that is poor public policy at a minimum, and it's poor criminal-justice policy," Perez said in the interview.
He said wardens and jail employees he has met support the workforce programs because they improve officer safety and inmates' morale.
Bonnie Kent from Millwood Inc., a company that makes wooden shipping pallets, talked about what it's been like to have Ildefonso "Chris" Garcia as an employee. Garcia went through the program and was released less than two months ago.
"He's been with us for about four weeks," Kent said. "We personally didn't think he was going to last very long, because it's a very demanding, physical job. A lot of times we have guys that leave within the first three or four hours. And he comes every day, whether it's walking or busing, he gets down there, and he's been doing a great job."
Perez said one of the inmates he met in Connecticut passed him a handwritten note the labor secretary read on the flight home to Washington. The inmate said the job training had given him confidence that he can change his life.
"It's really being told that you can amount to something," Perez said. "And so many of the people I've met behind the fence have been told they'll never amount to anything."
Johnson reported from Washington and Mack from New Haven.