Taylor Stoehr is a professor of literature in the College of Liberal Arts at UMass Boston and helped found the Dorcester, MA branch of CLTL in 1994.
The evidence is overwhelming that having a decent job is a crucial determining factor in whether criminal offenders are able to reform instead of returning to jail. Robert Sampson and John Laub’s prize-winning book Crime in the Making(Harvard UP, 1993) proves the point compellingly. But whether in prison or out, job training and educational opportunities have been decimated by the false economies of state budget cuts, and CORI checks prevent even qualified former offenders from getting hired. No wonder we find massive unemployment among precisely the population most at risk.
What can be done? Our experiment in the Changing Lives program in Boston’s inner city, begun about the same moment and in the same locale that Sampson and Laub were writing about, may not offer a solution to the huge social problem they describe, but it does shed light on the realities that face criminal offenders trying to change their lives for the better.
I remember a class not long ago in which more than half of the probationers were jobless – some for so long that they had given up looking; others were actively searching but unwilling to work for demeaning minimum wages. One man with a college degree had been fired after four days in a white-collar job, when his felony record caught up with him, and he was now washing dishes. Several men were living off family members – parents, girlfriends. One young fellow about to become a father was full of good intentions, but without skills or experience, his ambition had already dissolved in marijuana fantasies. The dishwasher joked about going back to armed robbery as a career. Here was the practical dimension of life bearing down on the emotional and ethical choices people make. How were we to answer his bitter jest?
In the midst of all this, however, we had several sturdy day laborers and truck drivers who offered good advice: “Go down to the union hall and sell yourself! They don’t care if you’ve got a record.”
This conversation would take place before class while we waited for latecomers. To help run our small-group conversations that semester, we had a couple of volunteer facilitators, one of whom taught math in a middle school. Like some of the probationers, he too had recently been laid off. Every night before class he would share job leads with a young fellow who lived in his neighborhood: “Have you tried Home Depot? They’re hiring.” He also encouraged him to think about going back to school, another sort of job market right around the corner, since our classes meet on the campus of my urban university. Living at home with his mother, maybe he could swing it.
In short, along with the pressures and frustrations people brought with them to class, there was also a new kind of mutual aid developing under the umbrella of CLTL, with potentially far-reaching significance as an alternative to the streets and the dole. It was vividly summed up by a student who offered this testimony one night:
“I’ve been incarcerated, more than once. I want to ask your opinion about something. While I was in prison, I was always ready to mop the floors, do the sweeping, all the things you can do for $1 a day. It didn’t bother me. It was a way of getting out of my cell, for one thing. I didn’t think it beneath me. Then, when I get out, the same job is available, for $8 an hour! Now, why is it so hard to accept that job, if you can do the same thing in prison for $1 a day? It used to be that I wouldn’t even consider it. A matter of pride. But now, I’m thinking, if I can do it in prison, why should I be ashamed to do it out of prison? I learned something in prison, about being humble, not proud.”
He went on to tell us how his acting on this realization had ultimately led to a union job, with several pay raises, so that now, two years later, he was making $23 an hour.
Of course not everyone could profit from his exemplary story – you have to be ready “to hear the call,” as our students like to say – but I think we all recognized the authority in this man’s voice, amplified by the desperation others felt. In their chronic emergency, job training and an employment agency might be more appropriate – a more pragmatic sort of uplift than a literature course – yet our contribution is not negligible. It’s essential to have skills and opportunities, but equally necessary to look facts in the face, as our dollar-a-day probationer had done. His decision to give up false pride in order to gain self-respect, choosing humility rather than humiliation, did not go unheeded. Probably the most significant contribution the CLTL experiment makes is the opportunity for former offenders to inspire one another in this way.
But it’s not enough! It’s time for legislators to realize that it’s cheaper to help probationers find decent work than it is to send them back to prison with three strikes.