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Helping Returning Citizens Reframe the Future

The riots in Baltimore, triggered by the death of Freddie Gray on April 19, have put America’s broken criminal justice system and its deeper issues – police brutality, racial discrimination and mass incarceration – under a stark spotlight.

The role of the workforce development practitioner helping those exiting prison life to prepare for re-entry into the job market has never been more crucial or valuable. Returning citizens need more than just a job to regain their footing in the world – they are in dire need of constant support in overcoming their barriers, both  psychological and physical.

The psychological effects of incarceration vary from person to person, but no doubt, few from the criminal justice system leave prison life completely unchanged in some way by the experience. Most suffer from the long-term painful consequences of social deprivation and the development of habitual patterns of dysfunctional behavior and thinking. The good news is that these patterns are reversible—with the investment of time, resources and support.

At Employment Works, a career center Grant Associates operates that is solely dedicated to connecting people with a criminal justice history to jobs, it has become clear that much more is required than preparation for employment. What is clear is that a holistic approach with customers is needed, taking into account their background and physical and psychological barriers. Many people with criminal justice backgrounds come from broken homes and experienced some form of abuse long before their incarceration. They generally need help developing interpersonal skills and reframing their view of themselves before they can even begin the job search and interview process.

The first step to helping people transition from a difficult past into a new life that holds the promise of meaningful work, income, stability and a fresh start has to begin with an in-depth objective assessment of each one’s needs and barriers. The assessment helps determine individual need for the basics—food, shelter and clothing, as well as psychotherapeutic support for various issues that would prevent the commitment and focus a job search and continued employment require. They also need an opportunity to share their thoughts and ideas about the type of work they’d like to do, which helps later with the development of a career plan.  Community partners need to be engaged to help with the essentials required to sustain physical life, and once these are in place, the job seeker can truly begin the process of re-imaging the future despite the perceived odds against them.

Perhaps the most critical aspect of work with returning citizens is building a bridge of trust with them so that they realize they are not just a number. This means making sure they understand that they are important as individuals, regardless of the past.  Many returning citizens feel demoralized and have lost all faith in themselves. They must be helped to revisit the dreams they once had and supported in believing in those dreams. If they feel that they cannot return to their original personal and professional goals, they need support in establishing new, positive ones.  Such an investment goes beyond the minutiae of a job search—it encompasses something far greater: the retrieval of who the person was before their conviction.

As workforce development practitioners and mentors, we need to help returning citizens, regardless of their background, shift out of old patterns of how they view themselves and where they fit into society. The key is to recognize that the past does not have to define the future.