Newly expanded to Chattanooga, Project Return is in the second chances business

Each year, Tennessee penitentiaries release nearly 300 people a week who have served their sentences. Nearly half of them are back behind bars within three years, according to the Tennessee Governor’s Task Force on Sentencing and Recidivism. Project Return, started in 1979 by two ministers from Nashville, expanded to Chattanooga this fall with support services, vocational training and placement for ex-inmates. Over the past four decades in Nashville, Project Return reports that it has reduced the recidivism rate among its participants to less than a third of the state average and has offered a brighter future for thousands of Tennessians. CEO Bettie Kirkland has spent a decade leading the organization after a career as a lawyer and stints in the Peace Corps and as a writer and researcher for the Race Relations Institute at Fisk University. The tight job market has created new demand for second-chance hires, she says.

“There have been important voices and general movements in this direction which is great, but the current great need for manpower helps people see talent acquisition as the main innovation they need. as a business, ”she said. “We are able to explain how hiring the second chance and working with Project Return can be the innovation that helps turn the corner. “

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are the main obstacles for people hoping to enter the workforce once incarcerated?

It is important to be aware of the fact that for most people they come out of prison without resources, so there is this immediate time pressure in the context of misery. They are often put in front of prison gates at midnight and perhaps arrive in a city at dawn with a few dollars in their pockets. Most are in debt because of fines and court costs, they have no prospect of employment, no place to live or start. These are the pressures that people experience from the first moment of freedom, and these affect the ease with which they can enter the labor market. It helps a lot if you are healthy, have clean clothes, and have a stable living situation. It also helps if you have ID documents, which is obviously an absolute requirement, but most people who get out of jail don’t have basic documents. These are just a few of the basics that lie between people and the first day of employment.

On another level, there is the difficulty of not acclimating to this modern world. Cell phones, transportation routes, corporate cultures have changed. We talk to people about the culture in the workplace and what is acceptable. It is different from what it was before the turn of this century. It’s also probably important to recognize that imprisonment itself is a trauma, a devastating experience that is often prolonged, and which breeds helplessness, low self-esteem, low self-confidence, and you make it worse. with coming out and facing that stigma.

The biggest barrier is what we call the soft skills that we all need to bring into the workforce and the workplace, and we see a lot of people who may not have had the opportunity to develop these. skills before the incarnation, but even if they did, those skills are not appropriate in prison, so they may really need to hone them.

How does Project Return help overcome these obstacles?

Preparing for work is an everyday affair at Project Return. We are obsessed with employment, acquisition, retention, advancement. It turns out to be the # 1 predictor of a person’s success in life. This is not the only factor, but poverty, the lack of legal economy, is what motivates recidivism. We deliver job readiness to people returning from incarceration. We focus on the principles of workplace success – financial literacy, digital literacy, how to set up an email account, make sure they know what to do with that first paycheck, basic job management. ‘silver. We have three days of indoctrination to say, let’s get ready for work. We run it every week, and it’s a must for people who come for our services.

As for these basic needs, we also prove them every day: food, clothes, shoes, outerwear. We are not a community kitchen, but we sell so much food because you can’t be a job seeker or an efficient worker if you are hungry. We partner with medical, dental and vision care providers to pay our participants to receive this care. We are moved by the fierce urgency of now. When a person is released, time is wasted and their ability to get up, our ability to support them, will make the difference. There are many small things that can make the difference between success and failure. We learn those things that are needed from the people we serve.

As you embark on Chattanooga, what are your top priorities?

Connecting with people, having this awareness in the community that we are here to do the job. We go to correctional facilities, we have always been to all the state penitentiaries and many local county jails. COVID has made this difficult for 16 months. We’re not back at the facility so it’s important to us that they know we’re there for them when they get out. The sooner you come to us after your release, the better. Over time, voices in the neighborhood may turn to the next person and say, “This is where you need to go. “

Why Chattanooga?

We had been this Tennessee nonprofit for over four decades with great support, and the real downside for us was that we were only based in Nashville. If someone was released and went to Chattanooga, we weren’t there for them. We are very happy to be able to open in eastern Tennessee. It’s a very reproducible model that we have, but we also have the efficiency of being linked to the Tennessee system that way.

How has the tight job market affected your job?

In my opinion, there has been a gradual movement over the past few years to reflect on these second chance hiring issues. There have been important voices and general movements in this direction which is great, but the current great need for manpower helps people see talent acquisition as the main innovation they need in as a business. We are able to talk about how hiring the second chance and working with Project Return can be the innovation that helps turn the corner.

Generally speaking, there are two ways to hire someone. You can bring someone with the intention of being more involved in the success of the business, to grow and move forward, but there is the other way, which is to have bodies in a production line, and we don’t want to promote the latter type of hiring because it stems from an intense need but is not the best approach for people looking to lead a new life and get out of prison. A very tight job market could lead to this less thoughtful approach to hiring.

What I love most is that every person we can work with, find a job with, and be successful through thick and thin becomes an individual ambassador. The return is possible, redemption is not only doable, it is fundamentally American and part of the human being. Each of our individuals defends this in a calm and daily manner.

How do volunteers support your work?

Volunteering for us is a bit unique. People become bogus interviewers for us. We really connect with people to help them speak for themselves in an interview, and we specifically teach people to be upfront and honest about owning their past, not hiding it and bringing it into the picture. the context of who they are. Help people find this way of talking about themselves that is true but also true to who they are. Mock investigators come in and represent the outside world – the stranger. They come in and use the mock interview protocol and give participants the opportunity to put what they learn into practice. It’s an opportunity to interact with someone they might never have the chance to interact with otherwise.

You employ your participants to get them started. How it works?

We run job-creating social enterprises, an area that has not grown as much in the South as in other regions, but it is about offering immediate support employment to people who, otherwise, would struggle to find a job. We run a high quality recruiting business and hire our own participants immediately. We surround them with support that aims to make them succeed. Companies contact us as a recruitment company. The worker gets proof of concept, backed by Project Return, coached along the job readiness arc, and coming out on the other end as worthy and successful candidates.

We treat people as full human beings, we embrace people with hope and positivity, we want them to walk through our doors and feel our hopes for them, our expectation of their short and long term success. It has to be tangible and real, which makes Project Return unique. Project Return is in the realm of opportunities. No one can succeed and break the cycle of incarceration and poverty without an opportunity.

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